Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom. William Shakespeare, “The Tempest” Act I, scene ii
Actually, they were quite right. You could teach yourself witchcraft. But both the teacher and the pupil had to be the right sort of person. Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
There are many ways in which a tradition can be passed from elder to more junior members, including:
- Formal learning
- Learning from books and other media
- Learning from oral instruction
- Learning from assigned exercises or research
- Performing tasks under guidance
- Induction (picking up elements of tradition from exposure to them)
- Transmission of mysteries
Beyond learning a tradition, in acquiring knowledge and skills that are deemed to be of use to someone working in the tradition, the rôles of teacher and student could be relatively fixed, with one person permanently in a primarily teaching rôle and another permanently in primarily in that of a student, or fluid in several ways, including collaborative research, study groups, teachers assigning independent research to students, and students bringing prior relevant experience from other traditions or other fields.
Finally, personal gnosis may also bring lessons to individuals, which they may in turn attempt to share.
All of these aspects can be found in all forms of witchcraft, though clearly only learning from texts and personal gnosis can be primary means for solitaries.
Means of communication with witches one does not work with, is therefore of more importance the smaller and more isolated one’s group is, and all the more so if that group is only oneself, barring a staunchly isolationist approach. Deborah Lipp places the ongoing rises of public festivals, book publishing, and Internet resources as barometers of change in a sketch of the history of Wicca in the United States,1 which gives a measure of the importance of each of these to the development of witchcraft there, and drawing analogy to outside of the United States seems reasonable.
In light of this, the description of Wicca as an oral tradition does not hold for many Innovative Witches, since they lack any ongoing oral instruction. While it does not have a scripture, Innovative Witches are very often, if not quite a “people of the book,” then at least of the books. The ease and speed in which one can communicate online, means that it is also the forum within which many cultural norms are set within subsections of Innovative Witchcraft. While this has yet to have as much of an impact on liturgy or ritual format,2 it is of massive importance to the cultural experience of many.
A Traditional Wiccan’s Book of Shadows is almost always a hand-copied version of that of his or her initiator, or another coven elder. Its contents are considered secret, and the initiate oathbound not to reveal those contents. Opinions and practices vary as to additions to the Book of Shadows, but these variations agree on ensuring that at the very least the, “core,” material that one’s initiator received from his or her initiator, is in turn copied in toto.
Innovative Witchcraft, as in everything else, varies considerably. However, by far the most common definitions hold that a Book of Shadows is considerably more personal, than in Traditional Wicca. The glossary at ReligiousTolerance.org defines the term Book of Shadows as, “A personal diary of a Wiccan or other Neopagan in which she/he records their ritual activities,”3 while Scott Cunningham describes the Book of Shadows thus:
The Book of Shadows is a Wiccan workbook containing invocations, ritual patterns, spells, runes, rules governing magic, and so on. Some Books of Shadows are passed from one Wiccan to another, usually upon initiation, but the vast majority of Books of Shadows today are composed by each individual Wiccan.4
The majority of other definitions either repeat that it is a diary, that it is a workbook, or some combination of the two; and this would seem to be by far the most popular view within Innovative Witchcraft.
Hand-writing remains the norm, though perhaps with less justification. While the practice of maintaining a “Disc of Shadows” may go against mandated Traditional Wiccan practice,5 once one is no longer maintaining the Book of Shadows as an inheritance within a tradition it seems reasonable to abandon the holographic practice too, in favour of the advantages of speed, ease of editing and searching, and high-grade encryption, that most of us use routinely in other writing tasks. While there are some who do so, Innovative Witches often argue against it. Cunningham suggests:
It is a good idea to copy your spells and rites by hand. Not only does this ensure that you’ve read the work completely, it also allows easier reading by candlelight.6
The first point has some value, (though I do wonder if my knowledge of basic geology is really any better, for having had a primary-school teacher who insisted upon the same technique), but the last seems doubtful; it is a rare scribe whose hand can compete in legibility in poor light with a large-font printout.
On balance, I think the preference for handwriting within Innovative Witchcraft may be largely an emotional thing; there is always a pleasure to be found in crafting something yourself with the minimal degree of technology, and doing so creates a connection to the result. There may also be the fact that handwriting is seen as old-fashioned, or perhaps simply as a “Wiccan thing.”
It is worth noting that Frederic Lamond describes the original practice amongst Gardnerians as closer to the Innovative, quoting Gardner as saying:
The Book of Shadows is not a Bible or Quran. It is a personal cookbook of spells that have worked for the owner. I am giving you mine to copy to get you started: as you gain experience discard those spells that don’t work for you and substitute those that you have thought of yourselves.7
This is quite certainly different to the practices concerning the Book of Shadows, that exist now within Traditional Wicca. Nor can it be explained as a matter of Traditions maintaining a practice, while abandoning the wisdom behind it; the above quote does not well-describe the contents of the Books of Shadows, which while certainly not comparable to the Bible or Qur’an, is not quite a “cookbook of spells” either. The question of whether the Innovative practice is a concious return to what is believed to be the earlier Traditional practice, or an innovation, (perhaps due to the fact that oaths would prevent a transmission of Books of Shadows out of the Traditions to which they belonged), which happened to repeat Gardner’s earlier practice is unclear. Revisionism is likely to muddy the waters and make it less clear as time goes on. In either case, it remains that Traditional and Innovative concepts of the Book of Shadows are very much at odds with each other.
This can become a contentious point in the practices of sharing the Book. Both concepts of the Book of Shadows allow, and indeed in certain circumstances encourage, one to share one’s Book with others. The differences between the two are primarily whom one may share it with. Both practices allow one to share the Book with “brethren,” but the very differences in opinion as to who is or isn’t Wiccan, that this essay explores, means that some Innovative Witches would perhaps be prepared to share their Books with either an Innovative Witch or a Traditional Wiccan, while Traditional Wiccans would at most be prepared to share their Books with a Traditional Wiccan, and more likely only with a well-vouched member of the same Tradition. At the same time, while both would consider their Book to be personal, in the case of the Traditional Wiccan the Book itself is personal, while the contents are traditional and identical to that it was copied from (barring perhaps some personal additions not considered “core”), while in the case of the Innovative Witch the contents are also personal, if only in choice of sources. To allow someone to see one’s Book, therefore carries a more personal implication of trust and respect, with a refusal therefore suggesting that such a level of trust and respect does not exist.
The result of this, is that an Innovative Witch may to see a Traditional Wiccan’s Book of Shadows, which to the Traditional entails a request to break oaths which may cause offence, especially if there is any persistence in the request. The Traditional Wiccan will therefore refuse to do so, which to the Innovative Witch may suggest that he or she is not trusted and respected as much as was thought, and cause offence to him or her in turn.
It’s perhaps worth noting, that the most regular mention of a Book of Shadows in popular culture, and hence one that may have an influence upon cowans and some newcomers to witchcraft, is somewhere between the Traditional and Innovative form; the television show Charmed features a, “Book of Shadows,” that is personal to the three main characters, who are sometimes seen adding to it, but also a traditional inheritance, since the book itself has passed down from their ancestors. Where this differs most from the majority opinion among both the Traditional and Innovative, is in attributing magical power to the Book itself. Of course, this is hardly a novel concept, nor one unused in witchcraft elsewhere, such as in the use of magical alphabets in talismans. The idea of the book as magical artefact can be found in many accounts, including some of suspected witches,8 and fictions; hence for example, Prospero destroying his book with much the same degree of overkill, as he does his staff:
I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.9
While this is not generally held by any form of Pagan witchcraft, exceptions can be found. One magazine account describes a woman getting rid of a troublesome ex-partner, through the use of a magic book. The book in question is not even a Book of Shadows, but a copy of the Farrars’ A Witches’ Bible,10 a use which one cannot imagine the Farrars’ ever expecting. While such tabloid journalism cannot be taken too seriously, it does speak of the “magic book” persisting today, including by some who identify as witches.
Innovative Witchcraft has an ideological position of abandoning ideological positions. Like Traditional Wicca, it lacks a formal orthodoxy. However, it also lacks an orthopraxy. Indeed, the lack of an orthopraxy is perhaps more vocally, and regularly, stated than that of a shared belief, with being able to, “do what suits,” cited as a virtue. In terms of self-defining statements though, it is the lack of doctrine, not lack of liturgy, that is most often directly commented on, and in turn often seen as the basis for the virtue of, “doing what suits.”
Perhaps, this reflects Western post-Christian concepts of what makes a religion. In Christianity and Islam, doctrine precedes praxis. Catholicism has the Credo as the core definition of the faith, and the Reformed churches differed more vitally on doctrine than on practice. Islamic scholarship places great importance upon proving the validity of practices with reference to scripture. While Judaism is strongly orthopraxic, the basis of practice in doctrine can be seen with the answers to the Passover questions, which all give a scriptural reason for practices starting with the celebration itself: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, and then individual parts of that celebration.
That this has influenced Christian and post-Christian ideas of what defines a religion, is shown in the use of the word, faith, as a synonym for religion. Perhaps though, the assumption goes deeper than what is covered by the purely religious. Thought is seen to precede action, science to precede technology, and so on. Exceptions to this are either, ignored—in practice, technological advance often precedes scientific discovery, but since the principle discovered is still seen as ontologically preceding the technology, the account of the technology will often retroactively give the impression that the discovery was made first—or frowned upon—to act before thinking is viewed as folly in all but a few exceptional cases. Perhaps, this goes back as far as the idealism of Plato, and the degree to which Christianity values doctrine over practice, is part of a Platonic heritage it shared with the rest of Western thought, rather than an aspect of Western thought of Christian origin. A more recent additional philosophical source, could be the Cartesian project of attempting to build a philosophy of both science and metaphysics from first principles, under which praxis must by definition come from doctrine, once the Cartesian project has rebuilt that doctrine.
Traditional Wicca is highly orthopraxic,11 and it is a commonality in what is done rather than what is believed, that defines the Traditions. Rather than put forth beliefs about the gods and cosmology, and then develop rituals and other practices based on such doctrines, the Traditions teach rituals and other practices, and then individual practitioners may be influenced in their beliefs from such practice, and often influenced in different ways to their coreligionists, or even their coven siblings, though commonality of experience will lead to some commonality of belief. This is not often explicitly stated as such, but it is reflected by the emphasis placed in earlier Wiccan writing upon defining what it is that Wiccans do, rather than what Wiccans believe; consider the very title of What Witches Do. Meanwhile Gardner, attempting to address an audience expecting religion to be described primarily in terms of belief, expresses the difficulty in doing so: “Exactly what the present-day witch believes I find it hard to say.”12
Innovative witchcraft, by its very nature, breaks from this orthopraxy. At the same time, it explicitly does not return to an orthodoxy, holding the lack of dogma in Wicca, and much of Neopaganism, to be a virtue; often claimed to provide for a high degree of tolerance, compared with religions in which differences on doctrine can lead to heated debates, or even bloodshed. With Western thinking generally predisposed to view doctrine as preceding praxis, as described above, then there could similarly be a tendency to view a lack of agreed doctrine as preceding a lack of agreed praxis.
In being an orthopraxic religion, in a society that generally thinks about religion in terms of doctrine, Traditional Wiccans suffer an impedance in explaining their religion to outsiders and newcomers. The effect of this depends on the degree to which the outsider wishes to place Wicca amongst other religions. Ronald Hutton has complained13 that people enquiring about his work have often asked whether witches’ magic works. While this may not be particularly relevant to his research and publications, his complaint seems misplaced. Since witches claim to be able to work magic, which if accepted both suggests both, that current scientific understanding is seriously incomplete, and also that what witches do should be investigated by much larger numbers of people, on a whole variety of levels, this should surely be the most obvious and most important question for anyone to ask about witches! And so, if we consider again the title of, What Witches Do, that work talks to that audience. Yet, when we concentrate on Pagan witchcraft as a religious, rather than operative, craft, the assumptions about what defines a religion lead to the question ceasing to be, “what do witches do?” and becoming, “what do witches believe?”14
Innovative Witchcraft suffers a double impedance. Since it exhibits as much, if not more, variety in practice as in doctrine, practitioners can neither comprehensively answer the question as to what they believe, nor attempt to reframe the question in terms of practice. In actuality, it seems that what they do, is attempt to directly address the question of what they believe, and while there will be abundant caveats as to the degree of variety existing, there is plenty written about their beliefs.
For all such caveats, it would seem that there is a strong, if informal, sense of core beliefs and dogmata that are shared within Innovative Witchcraft—and generally assumed to be shared with Traditional Wicca as well—along with some well-defined denominational differences, such as the focus upon the Goddess to the exclusion of the God that is common amongst Dianic traditions. There are clearly times in which the stated concious ideology of a group is at odds with its own behaviour, and often with widely, if subliminally, acknowledged values. It would seem that this is the case here; Innovative Witchcraft consciously defines itself as being without doctrine or dogma, but it is commonality, albeit loose and flexible, of doctrine and dogma that is most often taken by its practitioners as being what unites Wicca, as they conceive it. Despite its conscious definition, it would seem that Innovative Witchcraft is not so much free of dogma ,as extremely liberal in its enforcement of it.
- [Lipp 2007]
- Entirely virtual rituals do exists.
- Also, while not witchcraft, The Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn <http://www.osogd.org/> stands as an effort to use Internet collaboration for the development of rituals similarly to the development of open-source software.
- [Robinson 1996]
- [Cunningham 1988a]
- Arguably though, the injunction that one’s book be in one’s, “hand of write,” assumes no other technological means of transcription, and is hence really an injunction against it being in any other hand, and the risk of exposure that would bring.
- [Cunningham 1988a]
- [Lamond 2005]
- [Hutton 1999]
- [Shakespeare 1623], Act V, scene i.
- [Chat 2008]
- At least as far as ritualism goes. In regards to other aspects of one’s behaviour, particularly outside of circle, there is little orthopraxy, and much individualism.
- [Gardner 1954]
- [Hutton 1999] & [Hutton 2003]
- This is still not of primary importance to Hutton’s work on the topic of witchcraft; as he is an historian it might be collectively labelled “what witches did.”