Traditional and Innovative Trends in Post-Gardnerian Witchcraft

A book, What Thou Wilt, developed from the essay on these pages, is now available, published by Evertype.

PDF VersionIV — Training, Standards and the Anti-fluffy Backlash

“Bunch of wanna blessed-bes. You know, nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister to the dark ones.” Josh Whedon, “Hush” in Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Standards & Training

In providing a framework, by which recent initiates can learn from more experienced practitioners, who would generally have been initiates themselves for a few years, if not much longer, Traditional Wiccan covens have the opportunity to provide at least a certain minimum level of training. While the small size of covens, and their often being isolated from each other could work against this—a small group lacking in collective experience has relatively little chance to obtain any more—a degree of caution before someone is either given Third Degree, or allowed to operate a coven at Second, should work to maintain such a standard.

Innovative groups which have developed into an ongoing tradition, have the opportunities of the same benefits. Unless longevity stands as evidence of such a level though, there is little to either demonstrate this to prospective new members, nor to guide the group itself. The idea of some sort of standards by which teaching can be measured, has often been suggested within Innovative Witchcraft, or Neopaganism more generally, and often refuted, with the ultimate reason for such attempts never succeeding being the lack of any means of agreeing on what these standards should be.1

For those working alone, or who have not yet attained the benefit of more experienced members that can guide others, the question of standards arises differently. If the primary connection with opinions and experience from outside of their own practices is websites and books, then the quality of that guidance is directly proportional to that of those books. While many books not aimed at a Wiccan audience would be of use, perhaps sometimes of greater use, to such practitioners, the continuing growth in the size of Wiccan sections of bookshops indicates that such books are being used as the basis of quite a lot of practice.

That many find such books disappointing, is indicated by the existence of articles with titles like, “Moving Beyond Wicca 101,”2 and New Page Books having a, “Beyond 101” brand. Given that 101 is generally used to mean the very gentlest of introductory levels in any given subject, such a situation would be peculiar, in just about any other field; one would expect there to perhaps be more 101-level volumes than any other given level, as introductory works will inherently have a larger potential audience,3 but not to be the in such an overwhelming majority of available works as to make, “Beyond 101,” a selling-point.

It would seem, that there is a market who want Wicca to cease to be an oral tradition that there are some books, about, and to become a religion that can be fully taught in books, but that many authors have been either unwilling, or unable, to provide this.

Self-Efficacy

The Dunning-Kruger effect4 can lead people lacking in experience and skill in a given area, to overestimate their skill, (generally placing themselves “above average”), fail to recognise skill in others, and if they do acknowledge a relative lack of skill, to underestimate this lack. Or as Darwin put it, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”5 This effect is offset by the fact that further study and practice leads, not just to greater genuine expertise, but more accurate self-efficacy. With a “101” level being disproportionately catered for by the publishing industry that has grown up around Innovative Witchcraft, one can expect for many practitioners to conclude, that since new books are not bringing new information, they are at an expert level of knowledge. The ability to judge one’s level of knowledge and accomplishment, is hence stymied.

What will differentiate any witch, Traditional or Innovative, is partly what he or she will get from informational resources that are not so-marketed at witches, but mainly what is learnt by doing, whether from the apprenticeship that working with more experienced witches offers, or alone. This being more variable than anything any standardisation can hope to provide a metric for, the range of expertise will, not just vary considerably from one witch to another, but do so in a manner that may be very hard for anyone else to judge.

At the same time, the model of doctrine preceding praxis, implying that knowledge precedes skill, described above, devalues the place of training, if we consider training as defined thus:

The concept of ‘training’ has application when (i) there is some specifiable type of performance that has to be mastered, (ii) practice is required for the mastery of it, (iii) little emphasis is placed on the underlying rationale [emphasis his].6

While the above definition offers a model with which one can frame a standard of training, it also suggests that the concern about standards in training, is at odds to the concern about placing witchcraft onto a consistent intellectual basis. The move away from orthopraxy is at odds with standards in training, not just in removing a consistency in praxis that in itself can form the basis of such standards, but in actively devaluing what training ultimately means.

The Anti-fluffy Backlash

The emergence of the concept of the, fluffy, is sometimes said to have started with the website, Why Wiccans Suck,7 in or before 2001, by an author using the nom de guerre, “4 Non Goths,” and an earlier resource by the same author on a free hosting service. It made criticisms of various trends of behaviour and ideology it identified as common amongst soi dissant Wiccans, and distinguishing them from “Real Wiccans,”8 particularly with regard to poor scholarship, an eager willingness to believe in historical opinions now largely debunked, or at least fallen out of favour, a hypocritical contrast between espousing religious liberty and holding bigoted opinions about Christianity, and a combination of a lack of healthy scepticism on the one hand, and a cynical unwillingness to ascribe much efficacy to magic on the other. Perhaps most pointedly, it suggested that those it described as fluffy, may be in the majority.

Starting points are rarely as neatly defined as one might like, and a general trend of similar complaints can be found before this time. Even Silver Ravenwolf, often condemned as a paragon of fluffy failings, complains of a correspondent whose practice of witchcraft seemed to consist entirely of making jokes about ,“coming out of the broom-closet,” and concludes that, “Wearing a pentacle and cracking jokes about ‘closet time’ doesn’t cut it.”9

What is clear, is that by the start of the 21st Century the concept of fluffydom, had taken hold in the psyche of modern witches of all sorts. By 2002, the website, Wicca: For the Rest of Us,10 was offering itself as a concious vehicle for opposing fluffies.

The strength of the concept can be demonstrated by references, or alleged references, to the perceived fluffy/anti-fluffy divide in works of popular fiction, such as by Terry Pratchett,11 and Josh Whedon.12 There is an irony in this, since the degree to which people may reference or emulate behaviour from fiction—or merely be perceived as doing so—is in itself taken as evidence that they are fluffy, and the reäction to the 1996 film, The Craft, kept large in the minds of the Pagan community by the controversy surrounding a Covenant of the Goddess representative acting as a technical advisor,13 may in itself have fuelled the backlash. Certainly, attitudes to fictional works were to become a battleground for those seeking to define just what was, and wasn’t, fluffy.14

Carrying, as it does, the force of invective, fluffy, is less likely to ever be defined to anyone’s satisfaction than, Wicca. A key concern, is the degree to which someone’s behaviour is related more to fashion than to religion, mirroring concerns about hypocritical piety versus genuine devotion that are found in other religions,15 but particular ideological or scholastic viewpoints are more often identified as fluffy than others. In particular, Feminist politics, strongly syncretistic practices, especially involving the mixing of pantheons in the same rite, a belief in the Murray hypothesis, or a belief that the death toll of the Burning Times amounted to nine million. Most succinctly, it could perhaps be defined by an inappropriate degree of seriousness; a definition that immediately hits a practical problem, since the degree of seriousness appropriate for any given situation is not something there will be consensus on, in a religious tradition that encourages its practitioners to exhibit both, “reverence and mirth.”16

Allegations of fluff do not fall neatly along Traditional/Innovative lines. Many trends more common in Innovative Witchcraft, are commonly cited as fluffy; in particular a high degree of syncretism, and abandonment of whichever aspects of Traditional Wicca a given author or speaker considers particularly important. However, while many of those who hold most closely to believing Gardner’s version of how he came to Wicca would be Traditional Wiccans, and those with the greatest degree of scepticism would be Innovative, such a belief is often also perceived as fluffy. To those who work very strictly with a single pantheon, the Traditional pairing of Cernunnos and Aradia as public god names, could also seem highly syncretistic, and hence subject to the view of syncretism as fluffy.

There is a much closer approximation with Traditional/Innovative boundaries, when it comes to writers, with authors and sources most perceived as fluffy being almost entirely Innovative,17 and with Silver Ravenwolf being the target of particular condemnation,18 and those most perceived as not fluffy tending, either to be Traditional, or to have a Traditional background.

Individual authors’ prejudices will obviously affect who and what they are inclined to use the label to describe. Arguments that there should be a clearer separation between religious and political matters, often leads not merely to an argument that Feminism should be considered separate to Wicca, but which make outright attacks of Feminism; hence ultimately propagandising a move from a Feminist position to an anti-Feminist, rather than apolitical, one. In particular, such arguments often highlight the nine million figure, unsurprisingly given the shared importance this has had to both Wiccan and Feminist understanding of history, but often in a way which is in itself anachronistic; comparing figures in Feminist or Feminist-witch publications with figures resulting from later research, not available to the writer critiqued at the time.19 One could expect a similar anachronism in discussing earlier history to be precisely what could earn a text the opprobrium of being denounced as fluffy.

As such, the concept of fluffiness, and the backlash against it, cannot be considered so much a stream of critical thought within witchcraft, as a fashion for the identity of “non-fluffy.” A fashion that indeed reduces the degree of critical thought applied to the issues that provoked it, as surface artefacts become referenced with increasing frequency, most notably in often attacking a publishing house more vehemently than the works it publishes. Despite this, it remains a significant motivational concept, in shaping the prejudices and opinions of witches and would-be witches.

While, as stated above, the boundaries are not drawn on Traditional/Innovative lines, they do correlate with them to a large degree. As such, Traditional Wicca may seem to offer the potential to seekers to at least reduce the risk, that one might be engaging in such behaviour, or waste time on authors or training techniques, one might later conclude were in themselves fluffy.

One result, is an increased interest in Traditional Wicca amongst some seekers. Lacking unbiased information about any traditions, the seeker has always been in the dark as to where one should turn. This is itself, part of the process of seeking. There is now a strong theme of criticism within Pagan Witchcraft, which could seem to many to not apply, or at least to apply considerably less, to Traditional Wiccans than to other forms of witchcraft. Such analysis is highly questionable, and from the perspective of a tradition that considers some people natural members, and some not, is a two-edged sword, as anything which encourages people to seek Traditional Wicca would likely encourage both “family,” and those best served by another path, alike. Conversely, there is also a move, from the same motives, away from any form of practice using the name Wicca, seeing them all as tainted with the same scorn, and hence favouring either forms of witchcraft that do not use the terminology, or other forms of Pagan practice, particularly reconstructionist movements, which tend to place a higher value on scholarly integrity.

What is indisputable, is that in being an insult which apparently has clear definitions, even when, as examined above, the distinctions are vague and impressionistic, the concept of fluffy has become an influence upon the perception, and self-perception, of many within Innovative Witchcraft.

1
[Roninwolf 2008]
2
[Mitchell 2005]
3
Generally, we’d expect the experience level in any field to follow something like a Zipf, or power-law, distribution; with a vast number of complete beginners, and rapidly diminishing numbers at increasingly high levels of expertise.
4
[Kruger & Dunning 1999]
5
[Darwin 1871]
6
[Peters 1969]
7
[Goths 2001a]
8
While the website points to departure from Gardner’s practices as an indicator that one is not a, “Real Wiccan,” the distinction does not appear to lie entirely on Traditional/Innovative lines—holding disdain for departures made out of ignorance or squeamishness, rather than departures, per se. There is also no entirely clear position on the importance of initiation or lineage.
9
[Ravenwolf 1999]
10
[Nobel Beyer 2002]
11
[Pratchett 1992]. This may however be read as parodying, the Traditional/Innovative divide, the TIW/Wiccan divide, differences on solitary vs. coven training, and other differences within modern witchcraft. Or it may be read as merely reflecting the argumentative nature of witches in Pratchett’s previous stories. It could also be taken as considering real witchcraft, from the perspective of such fictional worlds, where witches routinely battle fantasy-fiction monsters. Pratchett is after all writing humour, not polemic, and the more ways he allows an audience to find humour the better.
12
[Whedon 1999]
13
[COG 1995]
14
[Goths 2001b]
15
See, for example; Mathew 6:2, Matthew 6:5, Matthew 6:16, Mark 7:6, Mark 12:41–44, Luke 11:44 & Luke 12:56 for condemnation of “hypocrites,” in the Christian New Testament.
16
[Charge]
17
[Hautin‑Mayer] & [Landstreet]
18
[Perseus 2001], [Kestra 2005], [Nobel Beyer 2006a], [Nobel Beyer 2006b], [Nobel Beyer 2006c] & [Saille 2006]
19
[WIK 2007]
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