Lineage - Defining Traditional Wicca

Traditional Wicca: A Seeker's Guide - Thorn Mooney 2018

Lineage
Defining Traditional Wicca

Initiation into a traditional Wiccan coven confers lineage onto the new initiate. Most simply, lineage is a way of articulating a connection within a group, especially a family. Children trace their lineage through their parents, usually in the form of a surname. When we follow that line through history we find grandparents, great grandparents, and on and on. We may also find aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings, all with the same connection. Even if a family doesn’t share a single surname (few do, these days), they share connections through blood, marriage, and adoption. We use these connections in legal situations, to pass property, for example, or to determine who should be responsible for children in the event that a parent dies. We also use them socially, to build relationships and further reputations. If a stranger comes to your door, you’re usually more likely to invite them in if they can demonstrate that they’re actually related to you somehow. Similarly, we use our family connections (if we can) to find jobs, to find new places to live when we move, and to otherwise expand our social networks. Some families carry substantial legacies, having made significant historical contributions, gained notoriety through public scandal, or simply because they’ve accrued massive amounts of wealth. Consider, for example, what it would mean to be born a Windsor in England or a Kennedy in the United States. How might this be different from being born a Kardashian? A Genovese? A Rockefeller?

Lineage carries meaning beyond any individual. A lineage is a network, and having a particular lineage carries certain ramifications, whatever that lineage may be.

Traditional Wiccans possess initiatory lineage. Just like children trace their parental lineage through their mother and father to grandparents and then to great grandparents, a traditional Wiccan traces her lineage to her initiator and then to their initiator, and so on. This lineage is traced to the founder of the tradition, and sometimes beyond (depending on which version of history you prefer). A Gardnerian Wiccan, for example, belongs to a lineage that can be traced, step-by-step, to Gerald Gardner and one of his high priestesses. An Alexandrian Wiccan possesses a lineage that can be traced to Alex Sanders. Other traditions stem from their own founders, though they may not be named after them (incidentally, Alexandrian Wicca is actually named for the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt, not Sanders himself). Sometimes one Witch may be able to trace his lineage to more than one founder because—somewhere along the line—someone (either himself or maybe one of his initiators) was initiated into more than one tradition and passed both. This individual is said to have dual lineage. Even in these cases, usually one lineage takes precedence over the other, for various reasons, according to the individual Witch.

According to definitions we’ve discussed, initiation marks the passage from one state to another. This does not, in and of itself, confer lineage. Becoming a man, joining a fraternity, or graduating from a university may all represent types of initiation rituals, but they don’t usually carry the weight of a familial line. Becoming a traditional Wiccan entails both initiation and lineage. When a Wiccan speaks of initiation, he means the ritual act of becoming a Witch. When he speaks of lineage, he means the particular family line that conferred that initiation. In traditional Wicca, initiation and lineage are closely linked—one comes with the other—but they remain distinct things that warrant individual consideration for seekers.

There is an important paradox present in traditional Wicca, which you may have already discerned: development in the Craft is a solitary pursuit, and yet it takes place in a social setting. Your spiritual progress and your relationship with the gods and the seasonal cycles are personal, yet that progress is measured in the context of a coven. In addition to your individual experiences, you’ll also have group experiences and a shared body of knowledge from which to start. Part of this group experience is tied to your lineage. Within your tradition—which may be quite large, including so many people that you could never meet all of them—you have your more immediate family. These people will impact you, coloring and defining your personal experiences within the wider tradition. This is true of most any social experience: the quality of the people you spend time with necessarily impacts the thing itself. In traditional Wicca, lineage is one of the things we use to consider quality, though this is not always overt.

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In a coven, there is a connection that is so much greater than anything I could have ever fathomed having. We’ve made a commitment to work and grow in the same place, at the same time, and I can draw on that magical and emotional connection whenever I need to. For me, it is beyond value or measure. To those who follow this path—who chose to allow themselves to be chosen by the gods—there is no other place to be.

—Rayn, Gardnerian high priestess

Lineage and Legitimacy

As we’ve already discussed, traditional Wicca is distinct from other kinds of Wicca in that traditions share a core body of rites and lore that is passed from experienced members to new members. Each generation of practitioners inherits this collection of shared knowledge, with its key materials fundamentally unchanged. This is what makes the tradition a tradition, instead of just a collection of different covens. The integrity of this inheritance is a primary function of lineage.

Let’s think back for a moment to an analogy from the last chapter. In our discussion of initiation, I likened becoming a traditional Wiccan to training as a doctor. Doctors go to special schools, study, practice, and are ultimately certified by an external body that grants them authority. If we continue with this analogy, lineage represents the medical student’s professors, advisors, and perhaps the particular school that she chooses to attend. Lineage is a question of who does the training and ultimately takes responsibility for the education of the student. There are many doctors in the world, but each may have very different teachers. The quality of the new doctor is largely dependent on the quality of those teachers. Further, some teachers will have had longer careers, better track records, better reputations, or just greater rapport with students. It’s neither a perfect system nor a perfect analogy—lackluster medical schools turn out excellent doctors, and brilliant professors don’t guarantee competent students—but, generally, we tend to believe that we can reasonably expect certain levels of quality from our medical professionals based on where they were trained. Similarly, we find that knowing another Wiccan’s lineage can tell us something about what he knows and how he practices his Craft.

It is for this reason that lineage often becomes such a serious and sensitive subject in traditional Wiccan communities. If we think of lineage as a chain, then it stands to reason that a weakness in one link impacts the integrity of the whole. When someone asks, “What is your coven’s lineage?” what they are often really asking is, “Did you come from someone I can trust and respect?” This is, of course, another way of asking, “Are you really one of us?” And that is an intimate, touchy question indeed.

So what constitutes a weak link in the chain? What might call someone’s legitimacy into question, and who gets to decide?

As you might have guessed, the answer to that question is going to vary widely depending on whom you ask (and perhaps on what day you ask them). Some traditions, for example, place an emphasis on a particular initiation ritual and accompanying protocol. If that ritual isn’t carried out according to a particular standard, the validity of the initiate may be called into question, especially by those outside the immediate coven or line. It may also be a question of witnesses to subsequently vouch for that initiate. If no one can verify that a ritual took place, the initiate’s validity may, again, be called into question. Further—and maybe most significantly—there are questions in many traditions about what constitutes the “core” that must be passed. What elements of a tradition must be left unchanged in order for that tradition to be recognizable? Is there a limit to what can be changed—added or removed—before it becomes something else entirely? Most traditional Wiccans would say yes, of course, but we don’t all agree on where that limit is. The result is that, over time, an individual strand within a wider tradition (what we call a “line”) may alter the core to such an extent that other strands no longer consider those individuals to be practicing the tradition.

Imagine this:

High priestess Glinda decides that she has no use for flying monkeys in her practice of Witchcraft. Her tradition has always had flying monkeys—every initiate gets one of their own when they’re initiated—but Glinda finds the whole thing unnecessary. Maybe she just thinks they’re smelly and offensive. Or maybe she believes she’s found a historical precedent for not having flying monkeys. Maybe she thinks “flying monkeys” was really a misunderstanding on the part of early practitioners, and everyone is really supposed to have flying cats. Whatever the reason, she does away with the monkeys.

If I were in Glinda’s original initiating coven (me and my monkey), am I necessarily going to think Glinda is practicing the same tradition? What if I’m part of another flying monkey coven, twenty years down the line, and I meet someone at a festival who tells me we’re part of the same tradition and then pulls out a flying cat? What might I think? What conclusion could I reasonably draw?

If this sounds stupid to you, just replace “flying monkey” with “transubstantiation” or some similarly significant point of religious controversy. Religious groups have been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Wiccans are no exception. We draw lines, erect boundaries, and set standards. Whether or not those lines and standards are reasonable depends on who you are and what the context is (and, more often than not, whether or not you yourself are going to be excluded). What looks like a weak link in a person’s lineage may be a strength to someone else.

What seekers need to understand is that these boundaries exist.

In many larger Witchcraft traditions, numerous lineages may exist within a number of different lines. These lines are defined over time by characteristics that make them unique. Over generations of initiates, lines come to have distinct customs and defining personalities. Depending on how much information is readily available, a seeker may learn about the various lines within a tradition and decide to approach one versus another for a variety of reasons. Within my own tradition, for example, there are many lines. In Gardnerian communities, you’ll hear talk of CalGards, Proteans, the Old Kentucky line, the Long Island line, Whitecroft, Silver Circle, the Florida line, and others. Often, the difference between these lies in one charismatic high priestess or high priest, putting their own signature on some aspect of the tradition (even unintentionally) and then propagating it through generations of initiates who may not even realize that they’ve become markedly distinct from those outside their own Craft family. The validity of one line may be refuted by another, though both vehemently claim ownership of the Gardnerian label.

These differences in practice may be relatively small, such as a slight difference in altar arrangement or in the use of a particular tool. They may also be quite substantial, as in a different hierarchical structure or a different interpretation of a core rite. Individual lines may acquire particular reputations (for being “hard-line” or “elaborate” or “loosey-goosey” or “liberal” or some such, depending on who’s doing the describing), which may in turn reflect on its initiates, for good or ill. How much change is too much and what changes are big or small will depend on individual perspective.

Seekers can begin to learn about Wiccan traditions and the variations within them in a variety of ways. Many begin with the more well-known traditions and then discover others over time. Before picking up this book, you may have heard of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, but consider others: the Georgian tradition, Central Valley Wicca, the Mohsian tradition, Blue Star Wicca, Keepers of the Ancient Mysteries, the Minoan Brotherhood, the Algard tradition, and the American Welsh tradition. Some of the more established traditions have texts available detailing general histories, schisms, and changes introduced by prominent leaders (and you can find some of these in this book’s further reading section). In the age of the internet, it’s become relatively easy to find online communities devoted to specific Wiccan traditions. Lurking in these spaces—provided that’s permitted by the moderators—can be extremely informative. You’ll slowly come to learn who takes issue with whom, and over time many of the most pressing controversies will recirculate in discussion. If the forum is particularly welcoming to seekers, it is also not inappropriate to ask polite questions, especially if you frame them in terms of “I’m trying to understand something so that I can respectfully pursue the tradition from an informed perspective.” Be humble, and do more listening than speaking.

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People like to talk about each other, and Witches are no different. If you’re lucky enough to find an outer court, then you’ll hear a lot of this. Frequently, these stories are about the people closest to a coven—members, the parent coven, or the colorful and outspoken people in the local community. Whether these stories are funny, news about hard times, or the latest outrageous gossip, they serve an unstated deeper purpose. When Witches tell stories about one another, we’re negotiating community values and borders—often unconsciously. Our arguments and controversies anchor our common identity, the authority of our elders, and the content of our tradition. Over time, these stories become history.

—Lukaos, third degree high priest

Lineage as a Magical Connection

Lineage is more than disagreements over traditional purity or fighting across individual lines. Fundamentally, it’s about the passing of power, independent of any kind of wider social authority or concern over public scrutiny. When you belong to a Wiccan tradition, you are united by more than a shared Book of Shadows, a particular altar layout, or personal fondness. You are united through your upline to a communal body of power.

In the same way that a coven of committed members gradually builds its own egregore—its own personality or group mind, linking covenmates together on a magical level—a tradition gradually builds its own magical current. A Gardnerian circle for example, doesn’t just look like a Gardnerian circle, it also feels like a Gardnerian circle. That feeling—that energy—is bigger than just the words of the rite or the individual tools that are used. Even if an outsider were to get ahold of a legitimate Gardnerian text and perform it to the letter, that feeling can’t be replicated. Why? Because you can’t fake the passing of real power. And this power is the most important component of lineage. It’s more important than who initiated you, how long your training lasted, or whether or not anyone in your upline is still alive, years after the fact.

To continue with our doctor analogy, this is the ability to heal. A good medical school, a license, effective teachers, and diligent practice are critical, but these are not in and of themselves the power to cure illness and save lives. Belonging to a magical lineage is the ability to tap into that collective power, built up by generations of practitioners over time, working the same rituals, calling on the same entities, chanting the same words, carrying out the same traditions. The profound experiences that this generates—that feeling I described earlier—are one of Wicca’s great Mysteries and can’t be fairly put into words.

The idea that lineage is about the passing of a kind of power beyond the individuals involved has plenty of historical and religious precedent. Other occult groups have developed ideas about an inherent, collective essence that may be accessed upon initiation. We might also draw comparisons between Wiccan conceptions of lineage and certain Christian views of apostolic succession. Depending on perspective, that magical lineage may be strengthened and reinforced by its antiquity, its length, the power (and personalities) of the individuals who compose it, or the unique nature of the tradition being passed. It is difficult to make sweeping statements about what factors are inherently more meaningful than others. I have my own opinions, certainly, but as a seeker you may encounter many different perspectives. It’s worth approaching all of them thoughtfully.

Uplines and Downlines

We usually speak of our lineages in terms of uplines and downlines. Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a vertical line. Your upline is the succession of Witches who have passed their tradition to you. This would normally include your initiating high priestess and high priest, the high priestess and high priest who initiated them, and so on. Some traditions trace the upline across the sexes, alternating male and female (so if you were a female initiate, you would trace your upline through the high priest that initiated you, and then through the high priestess that initiated him, etc.). Other traditions emphasize the high priestess alone, with both sexes tracing their lineage through a succession of women. As societal understandings of gender develop and nonbinary models become more common, many more variations are sure to exist.

Your downline, as you may have guessed, is made up of those Witches whom you have initiated, in accordance with whatever restrictions your specific tradition places on lineage (a man in a tradition that traces lineage through women, for example, may not, in the strictest sense, have a downline). If you have more than one initiate who then goes on to have their own initiates, your downline would come to be branched, like the familiar family tree diagram. If you belong to a tradition that traces lineage through both the high priestess and the high priest, your upline may be branched as well.

Uplines and downlines are important to traditional Wicca because they reinforce the practices and expectations of the tradition. Your upline is responsible for teaching, mentoring, and correcting as necessary. These are your elders, tasked with passing the tradition as it was passed to them. Their downline, in turn, commits to the same, should they have their own covens and initiates in time. As a group, their behavior and ultimate quality reflect back upon their upline, in the same way that a child’s actions often tell us something about the nature of the parent. This creates a kind of social feedback that builds consistency in practice, preserving the individual tradition. One’s upline and downline often come to function as and adopt the same language of family—a network of parents, grandparents, children, cousins, and siblings. Theoretically, you could begin with yourself and document a full family tree, back to the founders of your tradition and including every branch along the way, many lineages woven together into one coherent whole.

Vouching

So how do the members of any given tradition recognize each other? In the case of older kinds of Wicca, there may be so many initiates in different parts of the world that, not only could you probably not complete that full family tree, but you could certainly never know all of them personally. And yet initiates have ways of keeping track of each other, finding others, and distinguishing between themselves and outsiders. The most visible strategy—the one you’re most likely to experience as you seek—is called vouching.

The premise of the vouching system is simple: given that initiation is a social process and a tradition is structured in terms of an interconnected series of lineages, everyone should have social and magical ties to someone else. One does not become a traditional Wiccan alone, after all. Vouching is the process by which one initiate affirms their connection with another. In doing so, others may more easily accept that person into their community:

“Yes, she’s an initiate. I was at her elevation ritual.”

“Yes, he’s family. He and my coven sibling have circled together.”

“Yes, let’s invite them. I know their high priestess.”

Vouching rarely happens in public space. If a new person appears on the scene and claims to be an initiate, the Wiccans in that community will likely have their own methods for evaluating that claim, and the newcomer may never even know. Alternatively, he may be asked to provide a vouch—the word of another known initiate in the community whom others know to be trustworthy. In whatever case, it should be clear that one cannot simply claim to be an initiate within a specific tradition without support and reasonably expect to be granted access to a private community. When I first began writing about Gardnerian Wicca online, I received several emails from all over the country asking who my high priestess was and whether or not I could supply the names of anyone who could second my claim of belonging. There was nothing rude or unexpected about these inquiries. I was online purporting to represent a community. It was only natural that the part of that community outside of my immediate family would ask for verification.

Traditional Wicca has a long history of outsiders pretending to be initiates. There is too much at stake to simply take the word of every person who makes the claim, especially if that person is recruiting for a coven, advertising themselves as a teacher (particularly one who charges a fee), or is otherwise trying to set themselves up as an authority. As a seeker, it is reasonable for you to ask around your communities, both in-person and online, to see if someone will vouch for a potential teacher or coven. Sadly, it is still a common occurrence that newcomers are duped by frauds. Sometimes, the best you’ll be able to get is, “Yes, I know that person, and she’s kind and well-informed.” From there, you’ll have to use your good sense and go with your gut. But we’ll talk more about that in the next section!

Initiation and lineage are two of the most striking characteristics of traditional Wicca, separating it from most other kinds of contemporary Witchcraft and eclectic Wicca. These two concepts are closely linked but not interchangeable. Where initiation is the ritual act that marks a person as a member of the group, lineage is both the specific place of that person within it, as well as the magical connection that she shares with her upline and downline. Within a tradition, there may be many lines, and these often function as family groups, in which members build strong emotional ties, reinforcing a sense of loyalty amongst them.

Fundamentally, lineage is about belonging, which is a central, driving desire characteristic of the human experience. Whatever our communities, we want to feel like we belong somewhere—like we have a place in the world. Questions about lineage inspire heated controversy on all sides because they threaten that sense of belonging. When you encounter Witches who seem angry or frustrated when these issues arise, remember what feels at stake here for the people involved. The more secure you are in your own identity as a Witch, the less such controversies will rattle you. In the end, the support you receive through your lineage is inherently more important than what outsiders have to say about it.

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When I think back to the time when I was a seeker, I remember occasionally thinking that if I found the right coven someday, it would be a wondrous utopia of spiritual people who have transcended most human faults and failings. This was in fact my own delusion in which I was placing unrealistic expectations on a future coven. If I did not transcend this fallacy, I would inevitably find disappointment in the end when I found out that each and every person makes mistakes.

Our coven brothers and sisters are learning just as we are. Today, as a coven leader, I learn something new each and every day. I feel that I must always remember to show humility in the way I lead within the coven in order to show that I am not infallible and that I, too, make many mistakes. What sets us all apart is whether we are willing to own up to those mistakes and if we have learned from them.

—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the

Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions

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