Becoming A Student
Seeking Traditional Wicca
There is an adage that floats around magical communities. You’ve probably heard it before. It goes like this: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
This is bullshit.
Rather, the underlying implication that the student need only sit around waiting is bullshit.
This little aphorism is popularly attributed to the Buddha, but its origins are quite a bit murkier than that. Far from being the piece of Eastern wisdom transcending the ages that much of the internet thinks it is, this famous bit of occult lore was popularized in the late nineteenth century by the Theosophical Society. Founded in the United States in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (amongst others), the Theosophical Society was interested in the pursuit of universal wisdom through the study of various occult systems, as well as other branches of religion, philosophy, and science. The idea was to further the spiritual evolution of the human race through the propagation of the teachings of the “ascended masters” (various great religious leaders and teachers, as well as spiritual beings who spoke directly to the society’s leaders). Though there have been significant changes since its formation, the Theosophical Society exists today, and it has done much to expose white occultists to other ideas and traditions. Unfortunately, this has also contributed to the fetishizing of nonwhite cultures, wherein we make assumptions about a group’s inherent value based on our romanticized, obscured view of them. The same mode of thinking that justifies the myth of the “noble savage” in the Americas gives us the “wise Eastern master” in Asia.19
When we uncritically repeat such pieces of mystical wisdom, especially shortsighted ones like the above, we do ourselves a serious disservice. If we’re generous, we could look at such a statement about the relationship between occult students and teachers and observe that the “ready” student is aware that everyone around him has lessons to teach. In growing, the whole world becomes his teacher. There’s certainly some merit to this. At worst, however, we may be tempted to use this as permission to sit around waiting, simply trusting that eventually the right mentor or coven leader will stumble along and recognize us as one of their own. We give things up to “fate” or “the universe” and in turn absolve ourselves of any responsibility for achieving our own ends. While there are certainly people in the world with such lucky stories, this is not a bet you want to make. It is one thing to be patient (and this remains ever a virtue) but quite another to be lazy.
As a coven leader and high priestess with the authority to bring new practitioners into my tradition, I don’t comb New Age bookstores or internet forums looking for people to initiate. I’ve never stalked someone from afar, ultimately approaching them from the shadows to say, “Hey, you seem like you’re ready to move forward. Here’s my phone number and the address of my covenstead. Why don’t you come to circle this weekend?”
That’s not going to happen. This is not a tower, and you are not a princess. There’s no one coming to rescue you. Slay your own dragon.
I’m already a Wiccan initiate. My seeker days are long over, and I’m not going to do anyone else’s work for them. I’m not going to hunt you down, pick you up off the internet, or respond to your public pleas for a teacher. It’s your task to reach out to me, not the other way around.
So how exactly do you do that? Once you’ve found a coven or a potential mentor, how do you actually reach out to them? How do you convince a secretive Witch group to let you through those shrouded doors and into the circle?
The Fyne Arte of Introductions
So by now, you’ve been seeking for a while. You’ve scoured the internet, you’ve followed local leads, you’ve attended open Pagan events, and you’ve continued reading whatever you can get your hands on. You’ve got your sights set on a particular tradition or even a particular coven. It’s time to make your move.
This is a lot less cloak-and-dagger than many people suppose. There’s no coded language or secret riddle. You don’t have to stand silently on anyone’s doorstep or be rejected three times before being allowed in.20 You don’t need a secret handshake. Instead, you need something quite a bit rarer and more valuable: good manners.
In the early days of Wicca, seekers often contacted covens through the postal system. Covens and seekers alike posted their addresses in various occult and magically inclined periodicals, inviting inquiries from like minds. Letters might be exchanged several times before those involved met face to face. Sometimes, this meant one party traveled a considerable way to receive training (remember the Bucklands, who crossed an ocean in pursuit of Gardnerian Wicca). Other times, information was passed entirely through the post, allowing for the building of tradition across distance, as was the case for many of those influenced by Robert Cochrane and Joe Wilson. In any case, letter writing played a critical role in the development and spread of many kinds of contemporary Witchcraft.
Nowadays, we don’t send many letters, but we nonetheless rely on written language. We send emails, we post to online forums and social media sites, and we send text messages. You don’t need to be a brilliant writer. It’s much more important that you be polite and direct. Your task is to put your best foot forward, express your interest, and set yourself apart from other seekers who may have reached out recently. Depending on how prominent and outspoken the coven, its leaders may receive several inquiries a month. Even the largest coven can’t take every seeker who knocks on the door. We have to make choices, and, like an employer evaluating a resume, we do so based on potentially tiny details.
Reaching out to a teacher or a coven (or just someone you believe can direct you to one) requires that you be polite and express yourself clearly and respectfully. You’ve already spent a good deal of time considering your goals, your needs, and your past experiences. Now you have to honestly convey those things to someone else who, at least theoretically, has the power to help you get to where you want to be. What’s critical to understand is this: you are not entitled to Wiccan training. That teacher or coven leader owes you nothing. There’s nothing that requires them to even respond to you, let alone invite you to attend an outer court ritual. A high priestess or high priest of traditional Wicca is charged with the protection of their coven and the preservation of their Craft. That doesn’t entail taking in every seeker who finds their email address and sends unsolicited questions. A lot of time and work go into maintaining a coven, and on top of that we may have mundane jobs, family obligations, and all the responsibilities that go along with being adults in the world. Most simply don’t have time or energy to devote special attention to anyone and everyone who asks for it. That initial correspondence makes or breaks you, so let’s look at the finer points of making a good impression and improving your odds of receiving consideration.
Let me go ahead and give you another glimpse into my own life as a coven leader so that you’ll have a better idea of how things look from the other side:
As the high priestess of one of the few traditional Wiccan covens in my state, and as a public Witch with an active internet presence, I receive inquiries from seekers every week. This number easily doubles at Halloween and every time a new movie or television show about Witches or magic finds its way into mainstream circulation. Most of these messages still arrive via my coven profile at the Witches’ Voice (www.witchvox.com), although every now and then someone will contact me through my personal website or blog. Although I read every single one, I respond to almost none of them. Usually, they go immediately into the trash bin.
Why? Am I just heartless? Deaf to the pleas of the spiritually wayward? Isn’t it my religious duty and moral imperative to assist those who stumble to my virtual doorstep?
I don’t take any pleasure in the struggle of others. Those of you out there looking for your Craft family, I feel you. Believe me. That’s why I’m writing to you now! I’m not heartless. What I am is experienced enough to evaluate inquiries with relative accuracy based on the tone and content of the message. Those that get ignored usually commit one of two sizable faux pas: either they contain only superficial questions and reveal no information about the seeker, or they make demands and reflect a gross sense of entitlement.
I am not a search engine or the Wiccan version of customer service. Still, some people insist on treating me like their personal answer mill. This is particularly irritating for coven leaders who maintain websites or who belong to traditions where information is readily available (even Wikipedia has some pretty extensive pages on a number of Wiccan traditions). Don’t be one of those people. Before you contact a potential coven, do your homework. Research the tradition. Read any available books about the tradition. Do an internet search on the coven itself. Serious seekers put in the effort of learning absolutely as much as they can before they make contact, so there’s no need to ask obvious questions. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview, declare that you desperately want to work for the company in question, and then immediately ask what it does. Your application would go straight to the bottom of the pile. Likewise, don’t approach a coven without knowing whatever you can about their tradition. Being a novice is perfectly acceptable—you can’t know everything!—but demonstrate that you’ve at least done the legwork. Don’t let anyone mistake you for lazy!
Even more frustrating than receiving messages like, “I want to be in your coven. What’s a Gardnerian?” are those who say things like “I want to be in your coven. Tell me how to become a Gardnerian.” See the difference? The first is lazy. The second is lazy and entitled. If I answered every single message like this that shows up in my inbox, I wouldn’t have much energy left for the good ones. On a good day, a thoughtless question might receive an answer, but a demand never will. As a seeker, you are the one approaching the coven. You are the one asking for attention. You are the one making the appeals. From their perspective, Wicca doesn’t need you and Wicca isn’t asking for you. Traditional coven leaders may make themselves available, trusting that sincere, worthy seekers will find them. What they won’t do is play salesperson with a stranger on the internet. A seeker who begins by making demands will probably fare poorly when confronted by secrecy, hierarchy, and the requirement for patience. A seeker who begins by demonstrating a refusal to conduct independent inquiry or to pursue all available opportunities to learn is unlikely to succeed in an environment that requires independence and perseverance. Thus, I choose to ignore such messages out of my own desire to minimize wasted time, both mine and theirs. It’s not heartlessness; it’s mercy.
Okay, that’s enough scary talk about what not to do. Let’s get to some of the things that you should include in your opening. And guess what? If you spent some time thinking about the questions in chapter 7, getting to know yourself and pinpointing your own Craft needs, you’ve already done most of the work! A seeker who’s already got a handle on his own needs, goals, and limitations is miles ahead of one who hasn’t considered these things at all. Even if you feel overwhelmed, underprepared, or woefully ignorant about the tradition you’re pursuing—driven by a sense of calling alone—your best strategy is to cultivate self-awareness. This is what you need to convey to a potential high priestess or high priest.
It’s helpful to imagine that you’re writing a cover letter to a potential employer (well, if that employer were a Witch). Begin by introducing yourself and sharing some of the more significant points of who you are. You’re not just some random person with poorly conceived fantasies about learning Witchcraft; you’ve got unique experiences and a personality that sets you apart! You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who you are and what your goals are. Those are the kinds of things you need to address in an opening letter. Get the mundane stuff out of the way (your name, your age, your occupation, your relative proximity to the coven, and that sort of thing), and then explain why you’re interested in training. The high priest or high priestess who’s going to read your message already knows that you want to know more about Wicca. They already know you’re interested in joining a coven. They get these kinds of inquiries regularly. What they don’t know is who you are and why you’re approaching them as opposed to someone else.
As a coven leader considering a seeker, these are some of the things I want to know when someone first reaches out to me:
1. Why do you want to be initiated into my tradition? There are a lot of different kinds of Witchcraft and many other kinds of Wicca, after all. What do you think is so special about mine?
2. Have you been practicing Witchcraft on your own? Do you have experience in other kinds of groups?
3. What do you think I can offer you? What do you think you’re going to learn with my coven? What do you have to offer us?
4. Why is now a good time for you to begin training with a coven? What does the rest of your life look like that there’s room to commit to traditional training?
5. What are your strengths? What do you think you’ll struggle with?
That’s a lot of information, I know! But this is heavy stuff. You’re asking for something significant, and you need to make it clear that you’re serious from the get-go. If you can touch on most of these points in your opening inquiry, you will immediately set yourself apart as someone special. You don’t have to use five-dollar words or impress anyone with your mastery of formal English syntax. You also don’t have to write an autobiography. Traditional Wicca isn’t only for the overly literate. You just have to be honest, thoughtful, and direct. The most important thing in your letter is you. Who are you? Why are you pursuing traditional Wicca? What are you bringing to the table? Don’t get bogged down asking too many questions to start; you’ll have that opportunity once the conversation begins. For now, focus on introducing yourself and explaining what you want and why you want it. Why do you deserve the trust that comes with being brought into a tradition? Seekers who can clearly demonstrate the effort they’ve already put into this process stand the best chance of being offered a place in a coven.
FROM THE CIRCLE
It’s imperative that you have a deep trust for any high priestess or high priest that you decide to connect with. Your high priestess and high priest will plan rituals, determine when and if you are ready for elevation, be your spiritual guide, and so much more. If you don’t feel that trust, you may need to seek out a different coven or look at other options. Ideally, a good traditional Wicca candidate needs to have some amount of self-awareness already developed. Working in a coven naked with a dozen other people can bring up all sorts of triggers. If you aren’t equipped to have conversations about what is coming up for you, you may not be ready. You can’t wait for a coven to fulfill all your spiritual development. Having a daily practice, making your personal spiritual work a priority, and working on your own practice are important and will make coven work and ritual so much more rewarding.
—Phoenix LeFae, Wiccan priestess and Reclaiming Witch
There’s a good chance that, after you’ve sent that initial email, direct message, or letter, you’ll spend the next few days stressing about a reply. When it finally comes—especially if this is your first time reaching out—it’s hard not to feel a little giddy. It’s exciting stuff!
The next step is called vetting, in which a coven leader will try her best to decide whether or not to give you the opportunity to work with her coven. There isn’t a formula here—you’ll simply engage in conversation and try to get a feel for each other. This may happen through email, telephone, direct messaging on a social media site, or a digital hangout, and usually culminates in a face-to-face meeting.
Some coven leaders actually develop stock questionnaires to send to potential initiates, just like the kind you might have to fill out for a potential employer. These can really vary. Some questions are purely practical, covering your age, marital status, living situation, and similar bits of mundanity. Others get right down into your experience of the Craft, asking probing questions about what you’ve read, how you think about the gods, and what your personal practice looks like. I’ve met high priestesses who pride themselves on the extensiveness of the surveys they require seekers to complete—sometimes several pages worth of information. Theoretically, these questions allow a potential teacher to evaluate a student’s fit with minimal investment on the coven’s part. A sincere seeker will be patient enough to answer the questions completely and honestly, and then the coven can decide based on whatever criteria it chooses.
Personally, I prefer to ask questions prompted by the content of the seeker’s initial inquiry, rather than immediately relying on something generic. If a seeker has engaged me effectively, I will genuinely want to know more about them and appropriate questions will spring to mind without prompting. When you’re curious about someone, asking more about them comes naturally. If they don’t come up on their own over the course of conversation, I will ask a handful of stock questions. Usually, this includes things like “How does your significant other feel about your desire to be Wiccan?” and “Can you reliably attend circles?” These are common sticking points for seekers, and I ask purely for the sake of practicality. Someone may be brilliant and fascinating, but if they can’t physically get to our covenstead or if they have emotional hang-ups about doing so, then there’s little point in moving forward. My favorite question to ask seekers is “What does your ideal coven look like?” This tells me a lot about them quickly and about their potential fit for my coven. I’m either offering what they want or I’m not.
If you do receive some kind of questionnaire, it’s likely that most of the information required will be relatively noninvasive, but pay attention. Often, the kinds of questions that a coven leader asks will be very telling. Coven leaders usually learn to ask specific questions of seekers in light of direct experience—good or bad—and these may reveal their values, prejudices, preferences, and personal hang-ups. It’s always your right to refrain from sharing something, to ask to discuss something sensitive another time (like when you meet in person), or to respond with your own questions. In fact, you should respond with your own questions. Remember, they’re not the only ones who get to do the deciding! You need to take this opportunity to figure out if this coven is a match for you, too.
Most initial conversations with seekers begin just like any other first encounter. You’ll exchange messages or emails, getting to know each other and determining if there’s cause to meet in person. If you both decide to move forward, it’s likely that you’ll begin by meeting in a public place. My own high priestess still jokes that one of our local fast food chains must surely be enchanted by now, given how many Wiccan priests and priestesses began their coven journeys in one of those hallowed vinyl booths. Wherever you meet, be sure to come prepared with good manners and thoughtful questions. Relax, be yourself, be honest, and just try to get a feel for the people you’re meeting. It’s really not all that different from going on a first date! You want to do what you can to make a good impression, but not in such a way that you obscure who you really are for the sake of someone who isn’t right for you.
If all goes well, the next step is usually an invitation to participate in some kind of coven or outer court activity. This may be purely social—a chance to mingle with others in the group in a more private environment—or it may entail participation in a ritual. Some coven leaders maintain social relationships with potential students for lengthy periods of time before inviting them to the covenstead. Don’t be discouraged if you feel as though you’re being held at arm’s length. This is common. Take what opportunity you can to interact with members of the group and focus on building relationships, whether or not they center upon magical practice. When you are given the opportunity to come to a circle, a meal at the covenstead, or another private group engagement, be prompt, bring a small contribution (a bottle of wine, a side dish, flowers for the host, or some such token), and be sure you know what is expected of you! Is there some ritual tool or special clothing item you’ll be asked to bring or wear? Is there a book you should have read? It’s always useful to carry a notebook of some sort, too, so you can jot down questions or thoughts as you have them, as well as remember whatever important information you may need for next time (and you can add all of this to your personal journal or Book of Shadows later).
FROM THE CIRCLE
We don’t have an outer court. We have two covens, an eclectic one and a Gardnerian one. Both exist as separate entities in our minds even though both meet in our house and share some Witches. Having two covens has worked out really well for us, and we find it preferable to the traditional outer court. There are a lot of really great Witches out there who have no desire to become initiates and would probably be poorly suited to it. Having an eclectic coven allows us to continue to work with those people and learn from them.
Outer courts are a lot like waiting rooms. Becoming a part of one leads to the expectation that you’ll eventually be moving on to something else, in this case initiation. Not having an outer court removes that expectation from the people we circle with, which can distract from the work we do. Today’s Pagan world is a huge and thriving thing, and there are lots of different avenues that can be used to figure out if someone would make a good initiate. We don’t think outer court is the only barometer of that. Many traditions outside of British traditional Wicca prepare Witches for initiation.
—Ari Mankey and Jason Mankey, coven leaders in California
Each coven has its own process. You may be formally offered membership in an outer court, or you may continue to interact and circle with coven members over an extended period, learning as you go. Sometimes, you must ask directly to be considered for initiation—it won’t simply be extended to you. We’ll talk more about how training actually works in the next chapter. Before we move on, let’s look at what can happen when things go wrong.
Recognizing Red Flags
In this chapter and the last, we discussed the process of locating and then joining a coven. I’ve walked you through the often daunting task of meeting potential mentors and asking for training. As you’ve seen by now, every coven and every teacher has slightly different procedures for bringing in newcomers, vetting seekers, and ultimately passing their tradition on to a new generation of Witches. You may encounter quite a lot of variety as you explore, which is why it’s important to generally know what you want in a coven. But just as important as knowing what you want is having a sense of what you don’t want. Further, it’s important to be able to recognize downright dysfunction.
Maybe you’ve already heard horror stories about what can happen to hapless seekers who stumble into unscrupulous teachers and covens. Maybe that’s the thing that’s gotten in the way of your seeking up to this point. A lot of Witches who may otherwise be interested in coven work never pursue it because they’re concerned about all the things that can go wrong when a group gets involved, especially given how personal Craft practice is. It’s not untrue that Pagan, Witch, and other occult communities sometimes act as a refuge for the unsavory, the unstable, or simply the melodramatic. Witchcraft tends to attract the marginalized. Given that so many of us have experienced the pain of exclusion, there is often a deep-seated reluctance to exclude others. You’ll encounter all types of people in our communities. Most of the time, this is one of our greatest strengths, and very few people are genuinely out to take advantage of you, prey upon you, or otherwise do you harm. It’s much more likely that you’ll encounter self-appointed adepts and Witch queens out to collect peons without possessing the credentials or experience to back up their claims. You’ll also probably meet people who seek validation though collecting titles, students, or local notoriety. You’ll find people who will brag about their unsurpassed magical knowledge, namedrop their prestigious connections, and even discourage you in the pursuit of your own path because it makes them feel superior. Those kinds of people are certainly out there, and they’re usually best handled with laughter. Never take their words personally.
Finally, you’ll also encounter people who are genuinely struggling with difficult personal issues, working to build a home in a community known for its acceptance. Hey, plenty of us have been there, myself included, so handle such folks with compassion. Even the people who come off as jerks are usually just doing the best they can to deal with all the challenges that life can throw. Overwhelmingly, you will meet good, sincere people who mean well. But as a seeker, it’s not a great idea to make other people’s problems—whether they’re emotional, financial, romantic, or professional—your problems. Further, though they’re rare, there are absolutely predatory people in traditional Wiccan communities, just as there are in every community, and it’s important to keep an eye out for red flags. Here are a few potential signs that you should steer clear of a particular teacher or coven:
They refuse to meet you in public.
It’s one thing to be private. A certain degree of secrecy just goes along with being a Witch, but be wary of someone who flat-out refuses to have your first meeting in a public place. After a round of emails and phone calls, it’s very common to meet up with potential covenmates at coffee shops or restaurants, or even local Pagan events. This allows both parties to size each other up without the fear of being cornered in a secluded place. In the same way that you wouldn’t meet a blind date off of the internet at their unlisted address (this is so obviously the beginning to some horror movie somewhere), it’s not a great idea to go immediately to a stranger’s home or covenstead. Use your head and be safe. If there are legitimate reasons why a potential high priestess or high priest can’t meet you in public (for example, illness that renders them homebound), it is fair to ask if you can bring a friend. Put your safety first.
They immediately offer you initiation.
By now, it should be clear to you how significant rites of initiation are to traditional Wiccans. The decision to bring someone new into the coven is a heavy one that takes forethought, planning, and a lot of trust. It’s not something that’s ever done lightly. Nonetheless, it’s not impossible that you’ll encounter people anxious to initiate or dedicate you right away. There are plenty of people online advertising for coven members (“coven seeking priestesses” or “high priest looking to train students for powerful Witchcraft” and similar ridiculousness). Traditional Wiccans rarely advertise in this manner, if ever, especially nowadays. Often, such covens aren’t covens at all, but individuals looking to start them. The people behind the screen (or looking you in the eye at a public event) may be entirely benign and well-meaning, but it is very likely that they are, at least, only seekers themselves. Be cautious with someone who tries to become too intimate too quickly.
The conversation quickly turns to money and training fees.
While there are some kinds of Witchcraft in which adepts charge their students fees, traditional Wicca isn’t one of them. Training and initiation never entail financial profit for coven leaders. There are several reasons for this, both magical and practical. Let’s revisit our fictional high priestess, Glinda, to illustrate some of the problems around accepting money for Wiccan initiation:
Glinda is a hard worker. Aside from running her coven and serving as an elder in Flying Cat Wicca, she works a full-time job, takes care of her two children, and manages a household. She’s a busy woman. For the last little while, she’s been running both an outer court and an inner court, and this has her pretty much worn ragged. She’s also put a lot of hard work and many years’ worth of training to get where she is today. After a lot of thought, she decides that she’s going to start charging her Craft students for their training. She charges for her time and energy most everywhere else in her life, after all. People pay her for tarot readings, for the candles she makes, and for the labor she does at her mundane job. Likewise, she pays others for their own services. Her teaching and her Witchcraft are skills, like any other, and surely she deserves to be compensated. It’s only fair.
For a while, this seems to work out okay, and she comes to depend on this as a component of her regular income. And people are certainly willing to pay! She’s an experienced Witch and a skilled teacher. Her life becomes more manageable. But something is happening in her coven, and the shift is so gradual that some don’t even notice it. Glinda has lost a worthy student because he wasn’t able to pay the monthly fee. She’s also taken on a slightly less-than-worthy student to compensate for the financial loss. The egregore shifts. Her remaining students are no longer just students; they’re also customers with expectations. This is usually quite subtle, but every now and then it flares up and disrupts the group dynamic. In time, the quality of Glinda’s initiates changes, as their ability to pay becomes a consideration. As those initiates go on to start their own covens, adopting Glinda’s business model, Flying Cat Wicca as a whole feels the impact.
What would Wicca look like if coven leaders only accepted students with the ability to pay for it? If initiation could ultimately be purchased? It is absolutely reasonable for skilled laborers to demand payment, but Wicca is a priesthood, not a commodity. The gods do not only call those with expendable income. A traditional Wiccan may charge for her services as a Witch (though many refuse this, also)—for readings, for spellwork, for public lectures or workshops—but not for her power to pass her lineage and bring others before the gods of her tradition. This cannot be bought and sold. Period. Over the years, especially as other types of Witchcraft have come to include training fees, this has become increasingly taboo in traditional Wicca. Within wider Witchcraft communities, charging students may be more commonplace and accepted, but traditional Wiccan priests and priestesses will never require monetary compensation. It’s true, however, that coven leaders often incur a cost, and this can be difficult to manage without help. There are many ways to lighten the load that don’t involve a payment contract. Initiates may (and often do) help with the financial burden of running a group by bringing ritual supplies, food to share, or other incidentals. But if a potential coven leader opens by explaining their payment options, politely excuse yourself and continue seeking.
They spend a lot of time trashing other covens or individuals
in the community.
The truth is, Witches and Pagans don’t always get along with everyone. Over time, we all meet practitioners that we don’t like. Other groups in the area may do things we don’t agree with. We may run into individual practitioners who just aren’t very nice or who we don’t respect for whatever reason. That’s pretty natural, and it’s okay to not get along with every person you meet. What’s not okay is making that discontent the focus of your own Witchcraft. When a coven leader (or a whole coven) seems to constantly be embroiled in some kind of community melodrama, proceed with caution. The more time someone spends tangled up in a Witch war, the less time they have to actually practice Witchcraft. This works both ways: if the people you’re considering constantly trash talk others, that’s often indicative of some shortcoming of their own. At the same time, if you hear other Witches consistently badmouthing the group you’re considering, pay attention. Sometimes rumors are just rumors, but a bad reputation doesn’t usually just spring from nothing. Be fair and form your own opinions, but go in with your eyes open.
They immediately try to wow you with talk of their
hard-to-believe magical exploits.
Far be it from me to declare where the boundaries of magic fall. I’ve seen some pretty incredible things in my twenty years of Craft practice, and my policy is generally to give other people the benefit of the doubt. If someone tells me that their magic has cured terminal illness and that they regularly descend to the underworld to confront death directly, I’m going to smile politely, nod, and trust that whatever they think they’re experiencing is meaningful for them, regardless of my own opinion. Hey, some of the stuff I believe sounds ridiculous to plenty of other people. Join the club. But if you’re getting the impression that the people you’re talking to are telling you things specifically to impress you, beware. There are a lot of insecure folks in the world, and there are plenty of Witches of all stripes who spend most of their energy just trying to convince others that they’re stronger, more serious, more innately powerful, or otherwise “realer” than anyone else. But magic is as personal as it is inexplicable. It’s a great act of trust to share it with outsiders. When strangers immediately divulge seemingly impossible (or, hey, actually impossible) accomplishments, you’re likely just listening to a lot of hot air.
They proposition you.
Witches don’t generally shy away from talk of sex, but there are still boundaries. The relationship between seeker and coven leader represents a significant power differential, and this raises questions surrounding consent. It’s one thing for a mutual attraction to develop between equals, but it’s quite another to rely on one’s authority as a group leader to pressure someone else into sex. There are people in the world who use the Craft—and their position in the Craft—to take advantage of others (and, let’s just be direct, especially young women). Listen to your instincts here. It’s true that Wicca may emphasize sexual themes and that individual Witches may engage in sexual rites as part of their personal practices. It’s also true that Wicca tends to attract people who may be more sexually open. There’s nothing wrong with this. However, at no point do you sacrifice your right to your own body. Very few of us ever find ourselves in these positions (and most would be horrified), but predators exist in every community. If you feel threatened or pressured, leave. You always have that right.
FROM THE CIRCLE
Sex is personal. Don’t confuse it with spirituality. No-fraternization rules (for example, between officers and enlisted, between coworkers in the same department, or between professors and college students) exist for good reason. There’s an imbalance of perceived power, authority, or knowledge. In one instance I experienced, a student waited until a year’s classes were complete before broaching a teacher with a personal attraction. That’s a responsible student.
—Deb Snavely, New Wiccan Church, International
The lives of coven leaders or students seem to just generally
be out of order.
Figuring this one out can take some time. There’s no perfect standard that everyone in a coven has to meet. No one’s life is perfect. Everyone falls short sometimes. People struggle financially. People get sick. People have relationship problems. We lose our jobs, we deal with death, we make poor choices, and we all do things that we regret. Everyone’s life goes to shit sometimes, and this includes Witches. But if the coven seems to be in a constant state of turmoil—especially to the point where the emotional or financial health of students is affected—continue cautiously. It’s true that everyone deals with hardship, but it’s also true that misery loves company. I’ve seen situations where covens have collapsed thanks to eviction, divorce, drug abuse, and a number of other ills. Sometimes it’s not possible to set aside personal troubles for the sake of students. Sometimes the most responsible thing for a leader to do is put the coven on hiatus. Whatever the case, your focus should be on your own spiritual pursuits, not on the personal problems of your would-be high priestess or high priest. Do not commit to the care of others beyond your capacity to do so and at the expense of your own training.
In finding the perfect coven, there are few hard-and-fast rules. Many will take exception to some of the things I’m calling red flags. Whatever you decide for yourself, remember: you are a seeker, not a child. Do not surrender your personal authority and do not ignore your own good judgment. You can walk away from a situation at any time, for any reason, and owe no one an explanation. Very few of the people you meet will want anything but the best for you. Mostly, you will encounter good, sincere, trustworthy people. But it is naïve to assume that everyone in any community deserves your trust. There are many kinds of predators in the world, and traditional Wicca is not immune to their presence. There’s no need to be paranoid, but there is always cause to be cautious and smart.
When You’re Told No
Sometimes, things just won’t work out the way you think they should. Maybe you’ll hear nothing, despite a well-crafted seeker letter and all the sincerest intentions. Maybe you received a reply … just not the one you wanted. Sometimes, the answer is no, despite our worthiness and despite our good efforts. This can be a very discouraging experience, if not a genuinely heartbreaking one.
I have turned away more than one worthy seeker with deep-felt regret. In almost every case, my reasoning had nothing to do with them. I was simply overwhelmed with the initiates and students that I already had, and I couldn’t commit to taking anyone else on. Foxfire has always been a small group—most covens are—and we just don’t have the manpower (Witchpower?) to open our circle to every qualified person who finds us. When I commit to something, I do so wholeheartedly. If I know that I don’t have the energy or time to do right by the person or the project, I won’t accept that responsibility. I believe it’s better to wait and produce quality rather than settle and hope for the best. In such cases, I encourage seekers to stay in touch, get involved in the local community, and, if I can, I will point them to other covens that may be able to help them along their paths.
There are many reasons why a coven may tell you to look elsewhere. While I will turn away seekers when I feel that my coven may become larger than we can handle, others may only bring newcomers in during particular seasons. The period between Halloween and the winter solstice is often regarded as a “dark period”—the time between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, when the world lies fallow—and some coven leaders will abstain from beginning new projects. This includes taking on new students or performing initiations. The timing may simply not be right. Individual covens may have their own seasonal cycles dictating when they are open to new members, and you may simply not be privy to this detail. Try again in a few months! You may receive a very different answer.
It’s also common that a coven leader decides that a seeker’s personality, inclinations, or lifestyle simply doesn’t fit in with the group as a whole. There is a balance to be struck here, of course. Differences can make a coven stronger, but they can also cause unnecessary discomfort or strife if they are in overt conflict with the existing egregore or even the tradition itself. To give you an example, I once referred a seeker elsewhere because he was a vegan who also abstained from alcohol. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing to say you can’t be a vegan and practice Wicca or that you must consume alcohol. Many traditional Wiccans share in one or both of these choices. My decision was based purely on practicality and the individual character of my specific coven. Alcohol is an ever-present feature of our rituals, and certain beverages are routinely employed in sacred devotional offering to our gods. We were not willing to eliminate this practice to accommodate a newcomer—our gods and our personal traditions took precedence. As for his veganism, again, that might be very appropriate in another coven setting, but not in Foxfire. I am a licensed hunter, and the use of certain animal parts is a central component of Foxfire’s magical praxis. While I take no issue with the beliefs of others, I understand that my own are reprehensible to some, and this seeker was clearly one such person. He could not reasonably have been expected to be content circling with us. This was not a reflection on his fit for Wicca—only for a single coven. He was not a good match for Foxfire, and we were an equally poor fit for him. No hard feelings! There are many other traditional covens out there, and I knew that he would find another that would serve him better than we could. When I told him so, it was not my intention to disparage his character or his personal choices. Whether or not he agreed with me in the moment, I knew he would be unhappy with us, and we would struggle with him.
This is just one such story I could tell. You may be excluded because of your age (most covens will require you to have at least reached the age of legal adulthood, but many have restrictions beyond even that), your particular proclivities (maybe you’re really interested in New Age spiritual practices and the coven in question is strictly rooted in European Paganisms), your past experiences, your educational background, your profession, whether or not you have children or are married, or one of many other possibilities. Some of these are more reasonable than others, of course. Like it or not, a coven may base their decision on any criteria they choose, and you as the seeker will probably never know. Individual covens, as always, will draw their own lines.
It’s a sad truth that there are groups that will exclude based on race, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and other such factors. Some groups will exclude seekers based on misunderstandings about disabilities, mental illness, and similar considerations. As someone who has struggled with mental illness, I have experienced such things firsthand. When I was a seeker, I always tried to be upfront about my past difficulties with depression, anxiety, and self-injury. I knew there would be no hiding it, and, further, I didn’t think I should have to keep it secret (some of my scars are quite significant, so there was no hope of hiding in a skyclad circle, anyway). I met coven leaders who believed that I was inherently unsuited to be a priestess. In subsequent years, I’ve met a handful of others who will say disparaging things about the suitability of people who take antidepressants, completely unaware that they’re speaking to someone who relies on medication herself (people and their assumptions, I tell you what). And this kind of prejudice often pales in comparison to that faced by people of color, the genderqueer, the physically disabled, and others who defy long-standing expectations and assumptions. While, thankfully, prejudice is increasingly uncommon and new generations of Witches are working hard to combat it, it’s not impossible that you will encounter it. If you do, remind yourself that you’re valuable, you deserve the same consideration as everyone else, and you are not responsible for the ignorance of others. Keep seeking. There is a coven out there that will value the person that you are.
When you are not invited to circle with a particular coven, it’s also possible that the leaders you spoke with decided that you simply weren’t ready. Training in a traditional coven is a heavy commitment that alters the daily course of your life. Remember, this is a priesthood. You are not simply joining a congregation or a casual study group. Beyond simply having to rearrange your calendar, belonging to a coven will impact your relationships with your current friends and family, and it will change the way you move about in the world. When practitioners say that Witchcraft is dangerous, this is part of what they mean. Practicing the Craft changes you. You will view the world differently. You will interact with outsiders differently. The things you value may change. The way you think may change. It’s one thing to be curious about magic and to want to learn about Wicca. It’s quite another to be called to enter the priesthood of the Wica.
Even when you understand that, it may still be difficult to realize that you aren’t quite where you need to be in life to undertake that step. Often, coven leaders will look for indicators of a high level of stability: a steady job or school routine, a stable marriage or contented singlehood, a secure home life, a good sense of who you are in the world, and many other factors that we would associate with a certain level of maturity. These are the most obvious. It is difficult to be successful beginning in a traditional coven when you’re in the middle of a divorce, when you’re newly pregnant with your first child, when you’re struggling with medical school applications, when you’re considering moving cross-country, or when you’ve just lost your job and are terrified of what to do next. These are usually bad times to take on any major commitment beyond what is already at hand. On the other hand, sometimes periods of transition are perfect for undergoing dramatic life change. Sometimes upheaval can work in your favor and create the space necessary to start anew. Everyone is different. You must know yourself. The high priestess or high priest considering you must base their decision on initial impressions of you, as well as their own past experiences with others in positions similar to yours. Only half of that is in your control.
Regardless of why you are told no, the correct response is twofold. First, do a self-check. Be honest with yourself. Was this really the right time? Was this the right coven? The right tradition? Is this something you can actually help by doing something different next time? Or is there something else at work that is beyond you? Second—if you can still feel that calling inside of yourself—keep practicing Witchcraft. Keep learning. Keep trying things. Keep growing. Listen to yourself and talk to the gods and spirits. Now may not be the right time, for whatever reason, but that time will come. Be ready. Remember, too, that you are only one half of this equation. You must also decide when a coven is or is not right for you. Evaluate potential leaders sternly and be discerning. Accept an invitation to join because you believe it may be the right place for you, not because it is the only offer on the table. This is about you, not just the needs of any one coven. Everyone takes their own time and walks their own path, even when they’re part of a tradition or a coven. You can’t rush things, even when you try.
19. For more on this phenomenon, consider Jane Naomi Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture (New York: Oxford University, 2011).
20. Although, the tradition of being denied admission three times does have a precedent in some occult fraternities, so it’s not impossible that you’ll run into it amongst Witches.