Defining Traditional Wicca
The word alone is enough to make some people cringe, if not immediately protest. It implies boundaries, oppression, power struggles, abuse, authority, and caste. For many, it triggers flashbacks to awful experiences in childhood religions. It may remind you of school, church, or government. “Hierarchy” speaks of corporate work environments, where creativity withers and bureaucracy robs workers of recourse and agency. “Hierarchy” is what keeps the social elite in power, lording over the impoverished masses.
And for all those reasons, it makes sense that it should give us pause. In so many ways, Wicca promises us freedom and independence and personal power—the chance to be who we really are. So what should we make of the role that hierarchy plays in its more traditional forms?
It often surprises seekers to learn that traditional Wicca is hierarchical. Most of the popular books available today emphasize the solitary practitioner, beholden to no one. She may explore to her heart’s content, experimenting as she chooses, with nothing to stand in her way as she builds a unique, highly personalized practice. This is the Wicca that most newcomers first encounter. Even in groups, it is common to see more egalitarian structures. Members may take turns leading rituals or speak in terms of a shared learning experience; everyone is there to teach and to inspire everyone else. Such groups often eschew titles like “high priestess” or “high priest,” except in token to whoever may be leading the night’s activities.
In the seventies and eighties, many female-only covens (some identifying as Wiccan and many not) considered a coven hierarchy to be emblematic of a particular kind of patriarchal oppression, necessarily at odds with a feminist spiritual movement. The idea that someone might stand between a Witch and her gods—especially a Gerald Gardner or an Alex Sanders—wasn’t just ludicrous, it was offensive. Indeed, it is this idea about “mediators” between an individual practitioner and the religious experience that is often the most problematic for seekers, especially those from authoritarian religious backgrounds.
But how does hierarchy actually function in traditional Wicca? Is it really as fraught as so many other kinds of Witches say? And why do we have it at all, given how poorly it seems to work out for so many in other settings?
I think it may be useful to start by giving you a window into my own preparations as a high priestess for a coven meeting. So often the focus is on the ritual itself, and seekers aren’t given much insight into what goes on behind the curtain. I may be the leader of my coven, but that doesn’t mean I can turn my initiates into servants or lord my magical prowess and infinite wisdom over them as though they were children begging for candy. Real leadership, as you’ll see, is much less glamorous.
Hierarchy in Action
I pride myself on being a good housekeeper, generally, but even so there is a lot of work to do before people arrive for circle. I make sure things are put away, guest bedrooms are clean, tables are cleared, and the fridge is full. I vacuum all the floors and wipe down all the counters. I scrub the toilets and make sure the bathrooms are stocked with clean towels, toilet paper, and whatever else I think people may need. I ensure that we have all the ritual items we require. I buy or make the things that we don’t have. My covenmates aren’t guests in the usual sense; I don’t wait on their every need or adhere to the typical social niceties that go along with inviting someone to your home for the first time. But I do want to make sure the space I present to them is clean and inviting. In exchange for my efforts (and, frankly, because I hate cooking) my initiates and students usually wrangle dinner. They also bring the ritual perishables: flowers for the altar, cookies or cakes to share during ritual, and a bottle of wine for libations. Who brings what rotates, and I prefer to be left out of the decision, because I’m already up to my elbows cleaning a toilet or a litter box.
This kind of ritualized reciprocity is important to us. Traditional Wiccan training cannot and should not be bought or sold (more on this in chapter 8), but there is nonetheless a practical cost involved. Time must be sacrificed and ritual supplies must be acquired. When I was a student traveling to my own high priestess’s home, I coordinated food, wine, and flowers with my coven siblings. That gave our high priestess and high priest the freedom to focus on preparing their home and leading the ritual. Now, with my own coven, that’s my job. Someday, my initiates will have their own covens and they will likely swap roles themselves.
Everyone pitching in like this ensures that no one person bears the brunt of the cost, in either time or money. It also creates a stronger sense of community. Everyone helps. Everyone is needed in order to build something precious.
Usually, my working partner and Foxfire’s high priest, Lukaos, is first to arrive. We will have spoken on the phone several times beforehand, but we nonetheless spend some time before others arrive figuring out what needs to be done that night. We discuss how our initiates and students are progressing. We come up with strategies to help them individually. Is there something we need to discuss privately with Corvus? Could Lore use a personalized project? Is there something we need to make sure to cover in circle? We’ve been known to rehearse difficult conversations before we have them with people. We also spend a lot of time sharing our own personal experiences and thoughts, giving each other feedback on how those may be impacting our interactions with our covenmates. We swap family gossip, insights from things we’ve read lately, and we decide what may be worth sharing with the whole coven. Then, of course, we do whatever finalizing or practicing the evening’s ritual may require.
As people arrive, we prepare food, catch up, foster discussion, and work with individuals as necessary. A lot of forethought goes into the decisions we make here. Even in a shared tradition, everyone’s path in the Craft is totally their own. Our initiates are all in different places. They come in with different experiences and different needs. There’s no prepackaged curriculum for training Witches or passing our tradition. In many ways, these moments before the actual ritual are some of the most critical. Bonds are forged and cemented, oral lore is passed, lessons are learned, and secrets are shared. And all before the circle is even cast!
After everyone has eaten and dishes have been put away, Lukaos and I sequester ourselves and prepare for ritual. While we do that, everyone else sets up the space. They assemble the altar, make sure wine and cookies are plated and ready for libating, and, of course, they prepare themselves in whatever manner they need, all with senior members guiding newcomers as necessary.
This is hierarchy in action.
As a high priestess, my authority is not some inborn, divinely gifted power that entitles me to boss other people around. This isn’t power for the sake of power, designed to keep people in their place so I can feel important and special. My authority is neither domineering, nor is it arbitrary. It’s born out of the fact that I have experience that my students simply do not.
I’m transmitting something to them that can only be achieved by actually doing things, not reading about them or imagining them with other beginners. A traditional coven is hierarchical in the same way that a classroom is hierarchical. As a schoolteacher (which is really what I do for a living), I’m not in charge of my classroom because of some innate specialness. I’m in charge because I’ve got years of education and specialized training that my students simply don’t have. If I do my job, they’ll go on to acquire all of that in time. No teacher wants to keep her students in the same classroom year after year. Likewise, Wiccan initiates are expected to progress, building the skills of priests and priestesses in their own right and ultimately becoming autonomous (and maybe becoming coven leaders themselves). Continuing with our classroom analogy, we may employ a variety of educational models. Some teachers simply give lectures and require students to keep up. Others rely on more student-centered strategies, letting individuals explore according to their own learning styles. But no matter how progressive and experimental the classroom, there is still hierarchy in place. That hierarchy is based on the fact that the teacher is the one with the content to be disseminated, as well as the skill to transfer it effectively.
Note how, in my example, increased experience brings increased authority. Lukaos shares some of my leadership responsibilities because he, too, has that experience. Initiates who have been around longer assist those who are newer. The degree system is a way of measuring this kind of progress and maturity. Ideally, a degree system reflects experience; it shouldn’t be taken as a statement about inherent personal value, nor is it a license to push people around just because you need to feel like you’re better than someone else. The goal is to build people up, not keep them underneath you.
Part of my authority also comes out of the role that I play as host. I take on the responsibility of providing a safe, clean space for my coven. I organize schedules, orchestrate rituals, and provide the necessary working tools. I put in most of the time required to do these things, as is the responsibility of a good host. Guests, in turn, have their own responsibilities, particularly respect and courtesy. All the rules of good manners apply. If any of my covenmates desired more decision-making power, they could consider taking on the role of host. Put plainly, if you want to be in charge of a coven, you have to put in the work of starting, housing, and facilitating that coven! It’s an enormous job. Often, the egalitarian model comes out of the desire to avoid burdening one person with the task. Many other kinds of covens fall apart simply because no one wants to do the mundane labor of running one. Traditional Wiccan coven leaders are prepared over time and adhere to certain protocols and preexisting structures (such as an established liturgy), which make things less overwhelming than they might be otherwise.
Lukaos and I didn’t simply wake up one day, declare ourselves lords of the realm, and start advertising for peons. Honestly, the process of hiving and assuming leadership roles was a fraught one. We spent a lot of time asking ourselves why anyone would follow us anywhere and what we really had to offer. We may not have done it at all had it not been for our first seeker, Corvus, who began pursuing training from me when I was still a fresh second degree. I told her no more than once, for different reasons. I was too inexperienced. I was too busy. I didn’t have a working partner yet. It really should be a group effort, not just me with one student. On and on. Corvus’s persistence was finally rewarded after a second seeker showed up—Lore—and the two ganged up on me. I no longer felt like I could say no.
But that didn’t make me an automatic expert, and I refused to put up a front for them. Even once I was elevated to third degree, I understood that there’s a lot of mileage between the ritual afterglow and the tempered wisdom of elderhood. I was no elder, and I told them so. I opened my doors and took on the role of high priestess with the understanding that my job would be to teach them what it meant to be priestesses of my tradition, and that I would screw up sometimes. I can only ever teach what I know and offer what experience I have. What I wouldn’t do, I told them, was be their mother, their foreman, or their therapist. I’m not any of those things. As a third degree, I had made a commitment to my gods and to my community, and all I could do was show them how and why I did those things. If other people felt called to this as I did, I could show them the way as it was shown to me. I wouldn’t be a mediator between them and the gods; I would simply model the techniques for reaching those gods so that they could do so themselves. In turn, they would respect that experience. If they had felt they could do it on their own, presumably they wouldn’t have asked me to begin with. Should they change their minds, they could leave at any time.
Just like in a healthy classroom run by an experienced teacher, the goal is reciprocity. I bring my experience and the content I have to offer, and my students bring the willingness to learn. It’s not their responsibility to feed my ego or obey my every whim. If anything, my real position in the hierarchy is the one of service. My initiates don’t serve me; I serve them. I may be the high priestess, and I may call most of the shots, but I’m also the one cleaning the toilets.
The Purpose of Hierarchy
In discussing hierarchy as it actually looks in a real coven setting, its purpose should be clearer. The degree system isn’t license to bully lower ranking members, and the high priestess and high priest aren’t there to stand between you and the gods like self-righteous gatekeepers. Instead, the coven hierarchy is in place to facilitate learning. Much of the liturgy, history, lore, and techniques of magical practice are transmitted by tier and accompanied by oaths of secrecy. Some materials are only appropriate for third degrees. Others are available to all initiates equally. Some materials only make sense for those running covens. Still more are most meaningful for working couples. Everything exists within a wider context, and some pieces of any tradition will naturally hold greater Mystery for some and not others, at various points in their lives and practices. Further, turning again to our school analogy, some materials build upon others, essentially creating prerequisites. A rite may make no sense without first considering another, so a coven leader may choose to introduce them in succession. It’s worth spending time processing certain lessons before moving on or taking on additional complexity. An elevation represents preparedness to move forward, though the criteria will vary across covens.
A hierarchical system will usually apply to the entire tradition, at least theoretically. We generally have a sense that first degrees are relatively inexperienced, and that third degrees warrant some level of additional respect, but the reality is that each individual coven sets its own expectations and standards. A first degree in my coven isn’t automatically entitled to the same privileges as a first degree in another coven, especially in another tradition. Similarly, the high priestess of a coven can’t just show up at a public gathering and reasonably expect people outside of that coven to start deferring to her or calling her by whatever titles she may have earned. Hierarchy stops functioning outside of context.
Hierarchy is also a test of commitment, functioning to protect the larger interests of a wider tradition. Bringing someone into the inner sanctum of a coven is an act of deep trust. An outer court and a degree system allow this process to occur gradually, with the new Witch building stronger relationships within the coven and experience enough to handle the weight of added responsibility. Strong partnerships of any kind usually take significant amounts of time to develop. Romantic relationships rarely begin with marriage vows. Similarly, commitment to a particular tradition usually comes about in stages, designed to ensure that all parties involved make informed decisions.
On a magical level, organizing training in these kinds of stages better prepares neophyte Witches for more advanced work. Just like in a conventional classroom, some material must build on prior knowledge. The degree system is one way that we measure (albeit imperfectly) that preparedness to receive and process more complex material, or else to put familiar material together in novel, more profound ways. In working through a particular degree—however long it may take—an initiate primes herself to advance as a Witch, beyond just earning a title. In this way, Wiccan hierarchy is much more akin to something like a guild system than a caste system. The initiate displays mastery over time, thus earning the right to progress and perhaps one day to take on students of their own.
The reality, too, is that traditional Wicca has a lengthy history of attracting people with less than sincere intentions. It seems to just generally be true of people: when you’ve got a secret, other people will go out of their way to find it out. There have been many seekers over the years, in practically any tradition you could name, who’ve only stuck around long enough (and put on a good enough face) to be initiated and gain access to some Book of Shadows or other. Listen long enough to any elder in any tradition, and you’ll hear a story about some oathbreaker from days past who got initiated, published secret materials, left to start their own tradition with stolen rituals, or some such. Tales of infiltrating journalists and academics abound, just out for a sexy story. Also prevalent are cautionary tales about sexual predators, Witches from other covens with nefarious intentions, and other more dramatic characters. Put it all on paper, and it starts sounding paranoid and melodramatic.
Except that all of these things have actually happened.
Just recently came the publication of Alex Mar’s Witches of America (2015), which sparked outrage from members of the Feri tradition of Witchcraft (an initiatory, non-Wiccan form of Craft with a similar emphasis on secrecy), amongst others. Mar, a journalist, gained access to several Witch and other occult communities, and, whether her intentions were ill or not, much of what she learned and saw ended up in a popular book, allegedly without the consent of the Witches she had befriended and with whom she had studied and ultimately practiced Craft.
This sort of thing happens all the time, in one way or another. Sometimes, it’s a far-reaching violation, like the publication of a revealing book or article.12 Other times, it’s an ill-trained, careless first degree who simply makes a mistake on a public forum, sharing material that they shouldn’t. Tiered training ensures that only fragments of a coven’s rites and lore risk inappropriate exposure should we make mistakes about the people we choose to include.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Most Wiccan Elders are more than willing to share with a sincere seeker. You may decide that initiation is not right for you in their tradition, but the friendships formed can be beautiful and long-lasting. Most Wiccan Elders are willing to teach their religion to sincere and dedicated seekers, but it seems that there are a lot of seekers who don’t ask them for one reason or another. The seeker may not know they can ask them or they may feel they don’t know enough to ask. As a coven leader, I will not have all the answers they may be looking for, but I will do my best to answer to the best of my ability. When you question, I may question you back in order to challenge you to dig deep within, study, and ferret out the answers so that you can draw your own conclusions at times. Your answer will be more important than mine. But don’t be afraid to ask for help in the first place! The worst anyone can do is say no.
—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the
Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions
When Hierarchy Goes Wrong
One pervasive misconception about traditional Wicca is that it’s all about letting yourself be pushed around by some high muckety-muck, who promises you power and belonging but really just takes advantage of your naïveté and sincerity. I hope I’ve already disabused you of that, but stereotypes and misunderstandings can be very persistent. Traditional Wicca has been around for at least three-quarters of a century, and in that time there have been plenty of people burned by other people’s power trips. Horror stories range from being ripped off financially by some self-declared Wiccan teacher, to sexual abuse at the hands of an initiator, to just being bullied by a coven bent on convincing you that if you don’t do things their way, then you’re not fit to be part of the Craft at all. Witches of any kind tend to be extremely independent people, so the thought of being beholden to anyone else’s rules is pretty hard to stomach for most of us. And all of those horror stories of power abuse have to come from somewhere, right?
It’s true that there’s plenty of room for Wiccan hierarchy to go wrong. The fact of the matter is that any time you have people operating in groups, not everyone is going to play by the rules. This is as true about professional organizations, athletic teams, and parent-teacher associations as it is about Wiccans. While generally I believe in the goodness of human beings, some people are selfish, destructive, abusive, or power hungry. There are absolutely people in the world who don’t have your best interests at heart, and some of those people are your fellow Witches. Rather than telling you that it doesn’t happen or putting a bag over my head and declaring that real Wiccans would never do such things (there are duds in every community, and we don’t get to just disown them to avoid having hard conversations), I think it’s more useful to discuss how to recognize and avoid the kinds of covens and teachers that pose these risks. We’ll do that at length in section three. For now, a good rule of thumb is this: you’re a grown-up. No one else gets to tell you how to live, how to spend your money, who to have sex with (or to have sex at all), or what to think. People may offer advice, caution you one way or another, or even pressure you and deliver ultimatums, for good or ill. But you are in charge of making your own decisions. No one else’s occult titles or years of experience can take that away from you.
The relationship between a high priestess or high priest and their initiates does represent a difference in authority, it’s true, but only within that coven and that tradition. You never give up your individual power, which you acquired just by becoming an adult in the world. You can walk away from any coven at any time. You can say no. You can absolutely look for another coven or teacher that will support the choices you know are best for you. As you seek, take the time to periodically remind yourself of this reality.
12. Alex Mar’s Witches of America is only one example of this phenomenon, which may constitute its own genre. Another notable title is Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (1989).