Defining Traditional Wicca
I’m interested in learning more about Wicca. Can you tell me what Wiccans believe?”
It sounds like a simple question. It’s certainly a common one. Scan the Pagan or Witchcraft pages of any popular online forum and you’ll see it repeated dozens of times, at least. This is also the most commonly posed question from curious outsiders. Whether you’re beginning a conversation with a family member or participating in some kind of media interview or academic survey, that first question is very likely going to be, “What do you believe?”
This is the question we’re used to asking when approaching a religion for the first time. Want to know about Buddhism? Catholicism? Islam? There’s a good chance you’ll start with belief. In many parts of the world, especially North America and Western Europe, we tend to think that religion is fundamentally about the things we think. Religion is largely internal, made up of beliefs, which we use to create rules, which in turn dictate our lifestyle choices. This understanding of religion, however, is actually quite narrow. Thanks to a lengthy and sordid history of imperialism—especially Christian imperialism—we collectively tend to expect “religion” to look like a particular kind of Christianity (and Protestantism, in particular).13 That’s become our prototype, and it’s happened so subtly and for so long that most of us don’t even notice it. We just think that’s what religion is. A “real” religion has beliefs, creeds, sacred texts, and specialized clergy that provide public services (like weddings and funerals). “Real” religion concerns itself with the afterlife and morality. In both the academic study of religion and in popular conversation, we’ve even come to use particularly Christian terms—faith, church, minister, seminary—as though they are totally neutral and applicable to all traditions. This is part of the reason why Pagans now have seminaries and Wiccans sometimes feel compelled to “baptize” their children in rituals called Wiccanings. And, because belief is so central to most kinds of Protestantism—and our understanding of religion as a phenomenon comes from the emphasis we’ve historically placed on Protestantism—that’s usually where we think we need to start.
“Well, what do members of that religion believe?” In other words, how does this unfamiliar religion compare to Protestantism?
Over and over, usually without our awareness. So what happens when belief isn’t central to the religion in question? What do we do when “religion” doesn’t look how we expect it to?
Most of the time, we end up having an argument over whether or not what we’re discussing is a religion at all. We hedge our bets and say things like, “Well, it’s really more of a philosophy than a religion” or “This is more about spirituality than religion.” Increasingly, we describe ourselves as “spiritual but not religious,” because somewhere along the line we decided that “religious” meant being close-minded, old-fashioned, or obsessed with dogma. Rather than challenging ourselves to adopt a different approach to religion, we simply find a different word. It’s a lot easier to just call something a “lifestyle” or a “philosophy” than it is to question our cultural attitudes about religion as a category; they’re so ingrained that we don’t even realize that we’re biased, let alone understand where those biases originated.
The result of that kind of intellectual laziness is that we hamper our own understanding when we try to learn about a tradition that doesn’t match our limited prototypes. In order to better understand traditional Wicca, we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that religion is all about what people believe.
Consider our earlier conversations about the characteristics of traditional Wicca that I’ve described so far: the significance of the coven, the centrality of initiation, the emphasis on lineage, and the function of hierarchy. Those things are primarily about what people do. They may imply certain beliefs (particularly about relationships and certainly about magic), but many of those heavy issues we usually associate with religion—the nature of the gods, the afterlife, issues of morality, good and evil—are left to the individual Witch. Those are Mysteries that many prefer to approach alone, or in the intimate comfort of our covens. Many of us wouldn’t be able to express these things adequately in words even if we tried. Some of us look to reason, others to gut feeling. Still more retain beliefs from prior socialization and religious upbringing. In any case, we arrive by different means. Conversations about these topics can and certainly do take place in wider circles within whole traditions, but there is no ultimate, holy authority who dictates what an individual Witch must think. No high priest or high priestess can see into your mind and perfectly ascertain your beliefs. They can only measure you by your actions, so it is by our actions that we recognize each other.
Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy
As you’re exploring traditional Wicca, you may hear practitioners explain their personal practice in terms of “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.” These terms have long been used in formal academic spaces, especially within fields like anthropology and religious studies, but they’re becoming increasingly common in casual conversation, too. They’re a bit more complicated than people usually make them sound, however. Strictly speaking, “orthopraxy” derives from Greek and means “right practice.” In usage, it stands in contrast to “orthodoxy,” which means “right belief.” Orthodoxy has been used in Christian spaces to indicate that believers adhere to specific doctrines established in the days of the early church. Though historically various groups have differed about exactly which doctrines comprise a truly orthodox (and therefore “correct”) Christianity, what is central, for our purposes, is that it is belief that is the concern. A religious group collectively makes a statement about the nature of reality—for example, that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man—and individuals either adhere to this now-established piece of dogma (what we might simply understand as “truth”), or they reject it in favor of other, dissenting beliefs (what many Christians would call “heresy”).
Orthodoxy is concerned with the adherence to established beliefs. Belongingness is determined primarily by sharing opinions, thoughts, and stated truths. For more popular forms of Wicca—what we’ve come to call eclectic Wicca—this usually means that members are expected to express belief in various tenets. This frequently includes the Wiccan Rede (“An it harm none, do as ye will”), the Threefold Law (the belief that the good or ill you do in the world returns to you threefold), a belief in the inherent holiness of the natural world, and a paired goddess and god whose central myth is embodied in a particular seasonal cycle. If someone were to call themselves Wiccan but then follow that up by stating that they didn’t believe in these things, we would probably question whether or not they were truly Wiccan, in the popular sense of the term. An eclectic Wiccan might never cast a spell or conduct a formal ritual, but as long as she lived according to the rede and professed belief in the Goddess, she would likely still be accepted as Wiccan in eclectic communities. This is a more orthodoxic view of Wicca—it’s what you believe, think, and feel that’s ultimately important.
In contrast is “orthopraxy”—right practice. Orthopraxic traditions emphasize action. Belonging is marked by what people actually do, not by what they think or believe. A more orthopraxic religion would be less invested in whether or not members shared a particular perspective. What matters instead is the practice itself (the performance of specific rituals, the presence of particular social structures, and the consistency of particular behaviors amongst members). Traditional Wicca tends toward orthopraxy. Belief is not enough. You cannot simply think or feel a certain way. It’s not a matter of reading about certain ideas and holding them to be true in your heart. An orthopraxic perspective demands that adherents take action. For traditional Wicca, that means performing the rites of the tradition.
And if that sounds too simple, it’s because it is! It has become relatively common to hear traditional Wiccan practitioners say things like, “Wicca is an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic religion. It’s not about what you believe.” Such a statement, while potentially useful for understanding how the practitioner views his own Craft, is really only partially true. The reality is that, outside of theoretical categorization, orthopraxy and orthodoxy are neither discrete nor are they mutually exclusive. Belief and practice are intimately linked things, as one implies the other. What we think and how we feel tend to drive us to action. Meanwhile our practices suggest underlying beliefs. Action fosters emotions and opinions, while also reinforcing worldviews, even when it does so unconsciously. “Orthopraxic” and “orthodoxic” make convenient categories for religion scholars, and they do represent a legitimate difference in emphasis for many kinds of Wiccans, but we shouldn’t understand them in overly concrete terms. It’s not that traditional Wiccans are totally devoid of belief; it’s that their criteria for membership rests upon action—initiation, the practice of particular rites, organization into a hierarchical coven, the passing of lineage—rather than a particular internal vision about the nature of the world and our relationship with it.
An Experiential Religion
While it may be fair to observe that traditional Wicca tends toward orthopraxy, it is more consistently true to say that traditional Wicca is experiential. By and large, we believe (there I go again with belief) that our Craft must be experienced firsthand in order to really be understood. Further, these experiences—particularly those that are consistent for individuals within a single tradition—cannot be clearly expressed to someone who hasn’t shared in them. There’s something about the Mysteries that transcends language, or so practitioners often insist. In short, traditional Wicca isn’t something you can simply read about. It’s not just something you believe in. It’s something that you do.
Fundamentally, the process of training in a coven is designed to build experience. Without dictating what an initiate must believe about the gods, coven leaders create the space (both physically and magically) for initiates to encounter the gods on their own terms. The boundaries of tradition serve as scaffolding for a personal experience of the Craft. As we discussed in our look at hierarchy, the task of the high priestess or high priest is not to serve as a mediator between you and the divine—it’s to help you build that connection for yourself. The bonds that you will forge, the experiences you’ll share, the epiphanies you’ll have, and the challenges you’ll face are not the sorts of things that you can simulate through reading or observing. You have to physically and emotionally engage in the doing of Witchcraft. Solitary practice and eclectic practice provide their own unique experiences, which are also valuable. They are, however, distinct experiences. One is not a substitute for the other.
When other kinds of Witches and occultists insist that traditional forms of Wicca are outdated or otherwise less valid because so much of Wicca has been publicized, what they’re really doing is failing to understand the value of that firsthand experience. I once sat through a conversation at a Pagan meetup in which a local leader—who had no idea I was a Gardnerian priestess—explained to us that traditional Wicca was obsolete because, to quote, “It’s all on the internet now, anyway.” The people around me nodded sagely, as though congratulating themselves for not wasting their time pursuing something that they could simply Google in an afternoon. I sipped my coffee and remained silent, wondering what their own practices must be like that they felt like mine could be reduced to something pasted on a sacred texts website. How impoverished must their own Craft be that they couldn’t recognize oversimplification and incompleteness (not to mention downright lies) when they saw it? Oh well.
It’s true that there’s been a lot of material published in various media over the last several decades purportedly from traditional sources. The fact is, eclectic Wicca had to come from a place, and that place is largely traditional Wiccan lore made available through the spread of the Pagan Way and other outer court materials, tabloid exposés, revealing academic texts, and rogue initiates out to scandalize their teachers and build a name for themselves. Some of that material is more misleading than helpful, or else it’s so devoid of its original context that it’s practically meaningless. In any case, what all of it is missing is the nuance of practical experience within the intended, structured environment provided by a healthy coven. Part of the intention behind traditional hierarchy is the preparation of the individual Witch to receive the Mysteries through direct experience. This is a process that goes beyond simple exposure to a text.
Dion Fortune (1890—1946), a famous British occultist and prolific writer known for her work in the Fraternity of the Inner Light, believed that mystical information could only be understood by those who were ready to receive it. It didn’t matter if a student was accidentally exposed to secret materials (and Fortune herself was accused of breaking her own oaths by publishing certain information in her books; she had a lot to say regarding the role of secrecy in occult traditions), because it simply wouldn’t be meaningful. A magician who wasn’t ready to learn would not be able to retain the information, anyway. Wisdom would take hold in the consciousness, slowly growing like a seed, but only with care. Without that, it would simply fail to take root.14
Personally, I think there’s some merit to this, though my reasoning is a little more mundane: out of context, things tend to just not make as much sense. Further, if you haven’t put the work into achieving something on a deep emotional and spiritual level (if you haven’t worked for something), it won’t hold value for you.
Let’s go back to our imaginary high priestess Glinda and her flying cats, whom we met in chapter 4. In order to progress in Glinda’s tradition of Flying Cat Wicca, initiates put in years of hard work. They attend weekly coven meetings and develop personal practices at home. They spend a lot of time discussing their history, the reasoning behind their rites, and how they personally connect to them. They share a massive body of oral lore, which is always growing, developing, and deepening. Individual Flying Cat Wiccans build intimate relationships with their gods, whom they come to love in a way that isn’t really possible to explain to outsiders, even when they try. Covens are like families, and every time they’re visited by Flying Cat Wiccans from other regions, they learn something new about their own Craft.
Now imagine that a portion of Glinda’s personal copy of the Flying Cat Tradition’s Book of Shadows ends up on the internet. It’s not really clear how it got there. Perhaps Glinda made one of her initiates upset and they wanted to take some kind of grade school—level revenge. Or maybe the person who posted it was genuinely acting selflessly, believing that such sacred information should be available to everyone indiscriminately, like a modern-day Prometheus (Promeowtheus?) bringing fire to humanity. Maybe it’s just one ritual, or maybe it’s the entirety of the book as it’s given to new initiates. Whatever.
Are the people reading it online going to have the same appreciation as the people who are members of Glinda’s coven? They have the ritual (or maybe more), sure. They also have some strangers on the internet insisting that the material is genuine (because, as we all know, if it’s on the internet it’s definitely true). They can read the words and even try adapting things on their own.
But they are not sharing in the experience of being an initiate. They are not earning that material. They are not privy to the context of that material, nor do they have access to the oral lore and the years of personal and magical development required to grasp what’s really going on. The experience of working in a coven, being initiated into a tradition, and training to progress as a Witch within a specific system cannot be simulated through reading. Even if you stumbled upon genuine oathbound material, it would necessarily be incomplete. The value lies in the process itself, and access to that can only ever be earned.
FROM THE CIRCLE
At the age of forty, within the period of a month, I had an enormous paradigm shift from a very secular nonmagical worldview to acknowledging that I was an animist (of some sort), to realizing I wanted, more than anything, to be a lineaged Witch. When I got word back that I would be invited to an outer court circle, I had this really strange, intense fight-or-flight response. Part of me wanted to call the high priestess back and say, “No, never mind, I change my mind!” And part of me was thrilled beyond words and floating on cloud nine. The funny thing is, in the weeks leading up to initiation, I experienced this volley of emotions. It was a real and fundamentally deep change for me, a seeming antithesis to everything I had done or believed for the previous twenty years of my life (really, my entire adult life).
—Wren, first degree priestess
What about Ethics?
I can hear the protests already.
What about the Wiccan Rede! What about the Threefold Law! What about loving nature and honoring the divine feminine! Surely these things are fundamental to Wicca! How can you not include these in any kind of discussion about what Wicca is or is not?
So often the rede and the Threefold Law are discussed as the cornerstones of Wiccan identity—for many in eclectic communities and in wider Pagan circles, these are what makes someone Wiccan—and it feels almost like blasphemy to leave them out. How many other kinds of Witches have you known who started out pursuing Wicca but stopped because they were told that Wicca wouldn’t allow them to practice baneful or defensive magic? That every action they made would return threefold? That only environmentalists and vegetarians and Democrats could be Wiccan? That being Wiccan entails promoting a particular understanding of karma and a seemingly impossible moral absolute about never doing harm?
These are stereotypes, certainly, but they come from somewhere. For decades, eclectic forms of Wicca—just by virtue of being more numerous—have defined the whole movement according to a particular vision popularized as the end of the twentieth century approached. In 1974, the American Council of Witches, a short-lived group consisting of numerous prominent Pagan leaders, articulated the “Principles of Wiccan Belief.” This list of thirteen statements defined a worldview that members hoped would foster unity and lend respectability to Paganism as a world religion. In particular, the “Principles of Wiccan Belief” emphasized the centrality of nature and the importance of attaining harmony with the natural world, further codifying an environmental ethic that had become key to many Pagan traditions. They also decried the worship of the devil and the attainment of power at the expense of others. The Principles circulated widely into the early 2000s—there would even be subsequent attempts to revive the council—and new generations of seekers came to accept them, or variations on them, as given. Meanwhile, most of the books widely available to Wiccan seekers promoted solitary, eclectic practice and heavily emphasized a particular brand of morality rooted in a particular interpretation of tenets—particularly the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law—that had been circulating in Witchcraft communities in various forms for many decades.
There is still a great deal of debate surrounding both the origins and meaning of both the rede and the Threefold Law. Certainly, early Wiccans were, like many European spiritual seekers of the time, enamored with a romanticized version of the East rooted in colonialism. The concept of karma—in which one’s actions in this life are thought to impact future lives in the cycle of rebirth—became increasingly commonplace. As Wiccans entered into public life for the first time after the publication of Gerald Gardner’s books (and others shortly thereafter), there was also pressure to appear benign to concerned onlookers. Many Wiccans were very invested in promoting their religion as “white Witchcraft,” focusing on healing, self-development, and otherwise doing good in the world (remember, there were still laws against Witchcraft in place in some regions). Gardner himself described a Wiccan ethic that came to serve as a predecessor to the now-popular Rede:
[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one.” But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.” 15
It was important for the burgeoning new religion to put suspicious outsider minds at ease. And many of these early Wiccans surely believed in this moral imperative and sought to reverse what they saw as Witch stereotypes. They were vocal about their belief in consequences for the working of negative magic, and insisted that true Witches never sought to do evil. Doreen Valiente reiterated much of this in her own writing, including in a piece titled “The Witches’ Creed” in her book Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978). Valiente—as well as later Wiccan writers—sought to build connections between this Wiccan morality and earlier codes of behavior, including the teachings of Saint Augustine, who instructed early Christians to, “Love and do what you want.” 16 In doing so, Wicca could more effectively garner respectability in mainstream circles. This was a moral religion, like any other! As Wicca spread and new forms developed, these tenets were further codified in popular books for beginners and in popular discourse within Pagan communities.
Though the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law have so long been promoted as universalities—essential beliefs that define all Wiccan practitioners—this has never actually been the case (and much of this has been the work of practitioners outside of the older initiatory systems). Variations have always existed, and even the word “rede” itself means “advice” or “counsel,” not command. Individual covens have the freedom to practice as they deem appropriate, and the exact nature and specific contents of the various Books of Shadows are, to this day, secret. To assert that they share a common, codified morality is folly. I do not presume to know the intimacies of other covens—particularly in other traditions—and find it laughable that any could presume to know mine.
As you seek, expect to encounter a great deal of variety. Individual practitioners may hold a number of ethical positions. They may come from different backgrounds and hold different values. Often, their upbringings, regional origins, and life experiences will have as much (and probably more) bearing on their personal codes of conduct and the way in which they interact with the world as a Wiccan. Wiccans raised in politically liberal California will likely hold different beliefs from those born in the American South. Wiccan military veterans often hold different perspectives on war and bloodshed than those with pacifist backgrounds. “Harm none” may mean something different to a sheltered suburban teenager than to an adult living amidst urban poverty. A victim of domestic violence may have different opinions regarding the consequences of baneful magic than someone who has lived in safety all her life. And every one of these may represent a Wiccan perspective. It is that personal experience—coupled with the individuality emphasized by Wiccan practice—that informs one’s personal code of ethics. Even when we use the Wiccan Rede or Threefold Law as a framework, no two Witches will do so in quite the same way.
There’s a lot of overlap between religious belief and religious experience. It’s really not helpful to be strict in the boundaries that we draw, as though one exists independently of the other. Our beliefs inform our practice, and our experience within that practice alters our beliefs. One isn’t truly separate from the other. The issue is simply that, culturally, when we’re talking about religion, we tend to emphasize belief at the expense of all else. Traditional Wicca often throws seekers (and scholars) for a loop because our focus is practice and the experience of the individual. We don’t necessarily share an ethical code or an understanding of the exact nature of the divine. We don’t all have the same relationship with nature or with the rest of the world at large. Our backgrounds, our unique covens and traditions, and our direct contact with the divine (as it appears to each of us individually) make our Witchcraft difficult to define in the manner of so many other religions. Our boundaries are constructed based on what members do, rather than what they believe. Remember, this is called a “Craft” for a reason. We recognize other practitioners by the actions they perform. We define individual traditions by the specific rites that they perform and the manner in which they organize their groups, not by their thoughts and feelings. In the same manner that we recognize a blacksmith by his practice of smithing, we recognize a Witch by his practice of Witchcraft. The emotions, theologies, and reasonings behind that Witchcraft may vary significantly, even within the same coven. The experience of Witchcraft may be unique to each practitioner, but that experience is what sets us apart.
Traditional Wicca is not the Wicca that circulates so freely on most bookshelves and internet forums. The importance of the coven dynamic, the formal initiation into the tradition, the passing of lineage, and the functions of hierarchy and personal experience all make traditional Wicca considerably different from the many other kinds of Witchcraft available to the contemporary seeker. Now that we’ve considered these five central components of traditional Wicca in depth, it’s time to get to the real business of seeking. In the following section, we’ll look at the process of actually finding a coven and contacting its leaders (and persuading them to give you a shot!). We’ll also consider some of the pitfalls that go along with being a seeker, including how to figure out what you really need from a coven, recognizing red flags, and what to expect from traditional training.
FROM THE CIRCLE
My personal ethical code comes not only from my upbringing, but also from the practice of traditional Wicca itself. In 1971, Sybil Leek published her classic book on Witchcraft called The Complete Art of Witchcraft. In the book, she details what have become known as the “Eight Tenets of Witchcraft.” These include living a balanced life, humility, reincarnation, love, trust, humility, tolerance, and learning. To me, these eight tenets lay out ideals that we can strive for and directly add to the personal ethical code that I was raised with.
I also work toward ideals that I learn through the celebration of the sabbat festivals. Originally, there were only four seasonal rituals, but today we have eight sabbats, and each strives to teach us its own unique lessons. Even when a full coven of Witches has attended the same sabbat festival, each Witch will leave the ritual with their own observations, perspectives, and interpretation. What they get out of the ritual depends on what they need to learn from it at that time.
—Thorn Nightwind, priest of the
Horsa and Sacred Pentagraph traditions
13. For more, consider Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
14. Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah, rev. ed. (1935; repr., San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2000), 27—33, 85—86.
15. Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft (York Beach, ME: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2004), 108.
16. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, ed. Daniel E. Doyle and Thomas Martin (New York: New City Press, 2008), 110.