Because of our tradition, everyone knows who he is, and what God expects him to do Joseph Stein, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
At first blush, the word tradition is a straightforward one. The Compact Oxford Dictionary offers the definitions.
- The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.
- A long-established custom or belief passed on in this way.
- An artistic or literary method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and subsequently followed by others.1
Each of these can be seen as directly applicable to Traditional Wiccan traditions. Customs and practices are passed from elders to new initiates, (beliefs are a slightly different matter, though there is still an element of this happening), and these customs are considered their traditions. The third definition can be extended as applicable; some distinctions between Traditional Wicca and other religious or magical practices could be considered more a matter of style; certainly some things will be identified as “feeling” Wiccan or non-Wiccan more immediately than one could reason about whether they belong in the Craft.
It is therefore completely within the common dictionary definitions of the word by which we say; Gardnerian Tradition, Alexandrian Tradition, Mohsian Tradition, and so on.
However, in doing so, we have hit upon another use of the term, by which people will use it to refer to religions or denominations within a particular religion. This usage is relatively rare compared to alternatives, such as religion, denomination, creed, etc., and normally only used when one is concerned with a religio-political or religio-historical context, rather than purely religious and spiritual differences. When Irish politicians talk of, “both traditions on this island,”2 they are using a phrase has passed cliché into idiom, and is immediately understood as referring not just to the Catholic and Protestant denominations, nor just to the Nationalist and Unionist political aspirations, but to the complex, often shifting, way in which those religious, political and other cultural perspectives interact. Here again, there is something particularly apt in Wiccan preference for this term over the term denomination—they see themselves as not bound to their brethren just through common religious expression, but as sharing a kinship that goes beyond that.
Still, it remains that the Traditional Wiccan Traditions are still traditions in the more commonly used sense of the word. This is not necessarily so with Innovative Witchcraft. Here a “tradition” may be extremely new, having been consciously started rather than arrived at; may not yet actually have been passed on to anyone; and may very often die out before it ever is.
There are degrees of concious effort here. Ed Fitch’s Grimoire of Shadows is hailed in the promotional material on the back cover of the 2002 edition as, “The Book That Launched a Thousand Traditions,”3 though in the preface he describes his surprise when a friend of a friend, Joe Lukach, referred to it as a tradition:
Ed,he said,what you’ve written is a full tradition in itself. Didn’t you realize that?
Still, this creation was more a matter of serendipitous results, than a concious attempt to create a tradition. It may also be that Lukach means that he has written enough material that it could form a tradition, rather than it being fully a tradition as either of them would understand it.
Lukach was not a witch, but worked one of the Caribbean traditions. This brings us to another sense of the word tradition, that of a trend in magical practice which may or may not overlap with religious practice. It is probably this sense that Lukach was primarily considering, when he commented. Again, Traditional Wicca, and specific Traditional Wiccan Traditions, fit this sense of tradition also.
In this sense, there is still a strong implication of passed-down knowledge. However, for the most part people do not create traditions, they create orders. While orders such as the A∴A∴, the OTO or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, might be referred to as traditions, they were founded as orders, which then developed traditions, or worked with traditions that were (at least claimed as) preëxisting. Traditions did not spring full-formed like Athena from the foreheads of Crowley or MacGregor Mathers, nor of Gardner and Sanders.
Contrasted to this is the publication of books which attempt to start “traditions” by describing them.
The closest approximation to the deliberate creation of a tradition that we can find in twentieth century Western esoterica outside of Wicca, is probably the publication of Liber AL vel Legis, with the entailed creation of a new stream of religious philosophy, and hence if the philosophy found adherents, as it did, a new tradition. What is notable here, is the degree of novelty held to be in the work. As such Liber AL vel Legis stands not so much in the company of the founding of new magical or religious orders, as with other revealed texts such as لقرآن (Al-Qur’ān), or The Book or Mormon, groundbreaking works of religious philosophy such as Luther’s Theses, or even with declarations of nonreligious beliefs, such as Marx’s political Das Kapital, or Newton’s scientific Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. All of these works can be held to have started traditions, in one sense of the word or another, and all are remarkable for the novelty they exhibit or are held to exhibit.4 None of them had succeeded in creating a tradition until others had adopted them. It is that act of adopting, and hence of the philosophy being passed on, that makes the tradition.
Another notable point about traditions, is that they are generally created by “great” men and women. This is tautologous—creating a tradition with many adherents will afford you a place in the history books, developing an idea that is roundly ignored will result in obscurity—but still significant. Most people do not believe they are capable of producing a bestselling book, or leading a political party, or any other act that will affect a large number of people to a degree comparable to the founding of a tradition. Those that do so, tend to experience anxiety in their attempts for fame, or merely arrive at fame while pursuing other goals. We would expect someone who set out to deliberately found a new tradition to exhibit a very high sense of self-efficacy.
Sanders may have set himself outside of the Gardnerian tradition, but perhaps more found himself with a tradition in doing so, than consciously created one. He also felt the need to reduce, rather than glory in his position of founder, through his referencing his grandmother as a source. And this from a man who clearly had a high degree of self-efficacy, as needed just to deal with the rôle that he did own to. Probably the earliest completely self-concious attempts to create a Wiccan tradition was Buckland’s creation of Seax-Wica,5 which Buckland attempted when he had already attained a considerable measure of accomplishment, and could be justified in such a view of his own abilities.
By 2002 young newcomers to Innovative Witchcraft, even those who considered themselves to be lacking in experience, could not only harbour ambitions of starting a new tradition, but could quite openly express such an ambition, and expect it to be accepted, and perhaps even commended as a goal that would be benefiting to their form of Craft. One 20-year old Witchvox poster’s biographical notes, for example, reads “After gaining more experience with groups, I plan on starting a tradition of my own once I start my family in a few years time.”6 The positioning of this plan with other plans for her life, starting a family, would suggest that starting a tradition is seen as a considerable undertaking, but no more so than very common ambitions, such as raising a family, developing a house, any particular career plan, or any other long term goal. This goal is catered for directly by Raven Grimassi’s Crafting Wiccan Traditions,7 which suggests the ambition is widespread enough for those who harbour it to count as a market.
It is clear that by this stage, Innovative Witchcraft has inherited the term tradition from Traditional Wicca, but is using it almost purely as a term denoting denominations; and spawning such denominations at a tremendous rate. These two features, the change in definition and the proliferation of denominations, are clearly linked, but worth considering separately.
For different trends in Innovative Witchcraft to spread rapidly, is inevitable given the the very value on innovation that it exhibits, and the isolation between developing practices. The question then, is not why such groups differ in their practices and beliefs, as why do they identify as a denomination or tradition at all?
One possible influence can be found in the large number of Christian denominations to be found in the New World, particularly in the United States, and the strain of disestablishmentarianism that influenced it. The influence of Non-Conformist Christians fleeing England for the American Colonies upon American history, is well-enough stated to count as schoolchild knowledge in the Americas, if less well-known elsewhere8. In less than 40 years, over 7,000 disestablishmentarianist families moved to the Americas,9 and this has left its mark upon American forms of Christianity in many ways.
One such legacy is the relative mobility of church affiliations, and a growth in denominations considerably beyond what is often experienced in Europe, particularly within the Baptist family. The degree to which different Baptist churches are independent from each other could have chimed in the minds of some who had were particularly familiar with those churches (ex-Baptists in particular, and those living in areas with a high Baptist population) with the degree of coven autonomy held by Traditional and Innovative covens alike. Even outside of Baptist congregations, Christians in the US have always been more likely to express significant differences through schism rather than internal dissent, compared to Christians elsewhere. The progress of Mormonism, from a position of conflict during the Mormon Wars of the 19th Century, to being a quieter but still strong influence on the culture of Utah in particular, also sets a precedent for dissenting opinions finding a clear independent voice in the United States, which makes schism seem a more productive route than other expressions of dissent.
Attached to this, is a sense of entitlement that has led to particularly liberal legislation concerning the incorporation of religious bodies, the licensing for performing marriages, and so on, that may even have fed back to influence some of their religious beliefs.10
As such, when people consider the choices that differences between themselves and their coreligionists offers—to express their dissent from within, to identify themselves with another existing group, or in loose terms (such as “Christian,” “Pagan” etc. without any more specific denomination), or to schism and form a new denomination—then the history and culture of the United States makes schism more likely there than elsewhere.
With the two best-known Wiccan denominations being closely associated with their founders, (particularly in Gardnerianism being named after Gardner and Alexandrianism at least chiming with the name of Alex Sanders11), and many of the differences seeming to be more a matter of style than of serious theological difference, (particularly if one makes the assumption that doctrine makes the defining difference between religious traditions, as is explored in later chapters), the relative willingness to form new denominations seen in other forms of religious expression in the United States could easily find even greater impact upon Paganism and Wicca in particular. From there it could be exported back to Britain and the rest of the world.
In attempting to explain the fact that the word tradition continued to be used, even when it no longer applied in many senses, we are offered fewer clues. The word denomination is perfectly apt; denomination in itself means simply a named unit, and will immediately apply to any group once it has any sort of defined identity, whether a Traditional Wiccan Tradition, such as the Alexandrian Tradition, a long-standing Innovative Tradition, or a new “tradition” of a single coven.
Perhaps this relates to assumptions about what composes the dividing line between denominations. The best known splits within Christianity have occurred on crucial points of Christian theology—Transubstantiation, free will, theodicy, the nature and source of Salvation—and even those differences that were more strictly political—such as the authority of Church leaders—tended to involve at least one side of the split offering a theological argument for their position. The schisms involved have also led to considerable bloodshed in Europe, and remained divisive in the US even in the 1960s and beyond, as shown by concerns raised by a Roman Catholic becoming President.12
As such, two Innovative Witchcraft groups who held to pretty much the same range of beliefs and practices, but differed primarily on god names and aspects of calendar myths highlighted in their Sabbat rituals, and who generally got on well with each other (or even just pretended to), might not see the differences between them as comparable to that between Christian denominations, and hence not see the word denomination as appropriate.
A further influence could have been the lack of clarity on just what made a tradition. Descriptions of the differences between Gardnerianism and Alexandrianism commonly state that Alexandrians are “more likely” to make use of ceremonial magic. “More likely” does not a definition make. Some even go on to express the problems with this distinction, since a given Gardnerian coven may make considerably more use of such ceremonial magic than a given Alexandrian coven. For Traditional Wiccans, the most obvious distinction is in the lineage. Having abandoned or downplayed the significance of initiatory lineage, as many Innovative Witches had, the differences became either invisible, or else imagined to be other than they are.
Perhaps denomination was simply seen as being primarily a Christian word, and its use was deliberately avoided as such, by Pagans wishing to differentiate their religion from Christianity.
Ultimately though, I think that the strongest influence here is that of inertia and poetry. Innovative Witchcraft inherited, from both Traditional Wicca and Western magical practice, the term tradition and found no reason to stop using it. Also, as will be seen elsewhere, the poetry and nuances of Wiccan terminology has a force of its own that it is hard, and perhaps unwise, for Innovative Witches to completely depart from. Tradition had simply become a “Wiccan word,” and so it was used.
Since traditions, in the general dictionary senses, are what define Traditional Wicca, it is worth examining some of the better known such traditions, and how Innovative Witchcraft practices maintain, drop, or alter them.
The Wiccan Rede is probably the most widely known item from the entire corpus of Wiccan writing. In one sense this is strange—it doesn’t appear in descriptions of the liturgy of any Traditional rituals, and is relatively rare in Innovative liturgies—but in another it is easily explicable:
- It is often compared to what cowans know about their own and other religions, in particular the ethic of reciprocity found in many religions.
- As such it is often held as justifying a tolerant view of Wiccans by arguing that a reasonable degree of ethical behaviour should be expected from Wiccans, and hence they should not be feared and any form of discrimination or persecution against them is unjustified.
In its most common form the Rede is:
An it harm none, do what thou wilt.
Or in contemporary modern English:
If it harms none, do what you will.
Other versions include the slightly extended couplet:
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil
An it harm none, do what thou will.
Which underlines the apparent completeness of the Rede. Finally, there is the poem, “Rede of the Wiccae” published by Lady Gwynne Thompson, and attributed by her to her grandmother,13 which includes the above lines amongst others.
So. What then does it mean?
Unfortunately this question has been the subject of much debate, beginning amongst Traditionals and continuing largely amongst the Innovative.
The barest reading would be as follows:
- Rede means advice, hence you are advised as follows:
- In the case of your wanting to do something, and that thing not causing harm, go ahead and do it.
Notably, no law is mandated, and no advice is given concerning whether or not one may engage in harmful action; it implies you are not at as complete liberty in such cases as in harmless ones, but doesn’t rule out that such harm-causing action might still be appropriate. For the sake of further discussion, we shall label this the libertarian reading.
The most common reading seems to be:
- If something would cause harm, don’t do it.
- If something wouldn’t cause harm, do it.
We shall label this the legislative reading.
Critiques of the legislative reading will often focus on the impossibility of guaranteeing that one’s actions result in no harm. They tend to result in the following reading:
- If something will clearly do a lot of harm, don’t do it.
- If something will clearly do little or no harm, do it.
- Otherwise balance the potential for harm of differing courses of action, and pick that which will result in the least harm.
We shall label this the mitigative reading. Variants of the mitigative may agree with the libertarian in pointing out that rede means advice, not a law or rule, or may treat it as a law as the legislative does, and insist that Wiccans should follow it, or indeed people may state that all Wiccans do.
Both the legislative and mitigative reading will result in further debates on whether or not a Wiccan can engage in a particular course of action. In some cases this will result in claims that something could never possibly be done by a Wiccan.14
A fourth reading compares the wording of the Rede with that of the Law of Thelema,15 and noting that “do what thou wilt” is contained in both, associates the two; claiming that Wicca borrowed not just a wording, but the Rede itself from Liber AL vel Legis. We shall call this the Thelemic reading.
Doing so entails that examination of the Rede can essentially become examination of the Law of Thelema, and absorb all Thelemic literature on the topic wholesale to replace what had previously been written by Wiccans and other Pagans. It also raises several problems, starting with the condition of “An it harm none” becoming not just meaningless, but a compromise to expressing one’s True Will. Indeed, it also necessitates that True Will either be adopted from Thelema, or at least the question of whether and how θέλημα might differ from will, as commonly understood in English, must be examined. Ultimately, the question passes outside of the scope of Wicca itself, and into that of Thelema. Further, while it claims to be the most historical—being able to cite its sources, so to speak—it is arguably the most unhistorical, for it is the most difficult to correlate to Gardner’s writings on Wiccan ethics. Ultimately, the argument that the Rede is related to the Law of Thelema never does seem to overcome the, “An it harm none,” part of the Rede without revising it. Perhaps it is mostly for this reason, that the position appears to be a minority one.
The libertarian reading of the Rede has a limited scope, in not addressing any of the cases where ethics are most challenged. Those who hold to it may feel this to be a philosophical advantage, examining one aspect of ethics clearly rather than trying to fit all moral questions into one rhyming couplet. Those who hold to other readings, may consider it to be at a philosophical disadvantage for much the same reason. It is clearly of almost no rhetorical value in inter-religious dialogue, and none in arguing someone’s behaviour is or isn’t immoral. It can claim a strong historical grounding; being quite revolutionary in times when the impact of received morality upon both social conventions and legislation was much stronger than it is now; and so defending Wiccans who follow the advice of the Goddess:
And ye shall be free from slavery;
And as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites;
And ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love,
All in my praise.16
This same historical grounding makes it, arguably, partially obsoleted, or at least no longer as unique as once it would have been; that one must demonstrate harm before prohibiting something, is now generally accepted amongst liberal and even many conservative perspectives, and will form the focus of debate on any legal bans on what others might enjoy engaging in.
This may have encouraged the legislative and mitigative readings to become the dominant positions. Indeed, these two tend to bleed into each other; the legislative being held as a kind of ideal, with the mitigative as a practical application of it.
Their historical justification is debatable. The mitigative in particular offers, indeed almost requires, a large amount of scope for debate amongst those who hold to it, and it seems strange that such debates should hold so much importance within Wiccan discussion today, and yet not leave a comparable mark upon the earliest public Wiccan writings. The legislative view as an ideal differs from the way Gardner’s writings seems to accept that there will be cases where one must do harm, without even considering that things could be otherwise; but this in itself speaks directly in support of the mitigative view. The libertarian view can address that by merely ruling this concern to be out of scope for the Rede, and also in pointing to the tactical sense in reducing the harm one does as addressed by the Laws.
It is not even possible to say with certainty that early Wiccans held to any “Rede.” Gardner’s writing on the topic of Wiccan ethics makes no mention of the Rede, but argues by analogy with a work of fiction:
Witches cannot sympathise with this mentality. They are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol[e], ‘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’.17
As well as not referencing the Rede, it is notable that the possibility of needing to do harm is taken as a given, “so long as you harm no one” is not absolute, as it is immediately followed by a consideration of when one might do so; implying disagreement with both the legislative and mitigative readings of the Rede. This is considered with a lack of hand-wringing that is striking in comparison with much of what has been written on the topic more recently. Notable also, is that the degree to which one may render harm in defence of oneself, or another, is in broad agreement with Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. It may be more indicative of reasonably law-abiding people living in England in the early 20th Century, than of any pronounced ideological position.
To find anyone addressing service as part of witches’ ethics in a similarly pithy manner, we must look outside of Wicca to Cochrane’s answer to the Rede; “Do not do what you desire—do what is necessary.”18
Ironically, while offered as an objection to Wiccan ethics, this seems to be a large part of how many Wiccans, certainly the Traditional and large tracts of the Innovative, actually behave. This offers that when some Wiccans position the Rede as the root of all Wiccan ethics—as some of the Traditional and many of the Innovative do—those who do not do so are not necessarily in tacit agreement, but may actively disagree.
If we consider the Rede to not hold this position of a core ethical dictate, which is a possibility offered both by all the readings, but most readily by the libertarian, then the possibility is raised of other sources of Wiccan ethics existing. Ironically therefore, the libertarian reading, in allowing for other ethical considerations to have greater value, can potentially result in a more restrictive ethic than the others. It is not hard to see an ethical imperative in the Charge, particularly where it says:
Keep pure your highest ideal;
Strive ever towards it;
Let naught stop you, or turn you aside;
And there are also ethical implications to the lines:
And therefore let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion,
honour and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.19
Ethical considerations relating to the Ardanes, to coven authority, and to oaths also change according to whether one places the Rede in this core position. Positioned so, it potentially allows for these ethical considerations to be overridden, but otherwise it does not.
Considering the Rede to not have such a central position goes against what is probably now the mainstream view of Wicca, not only within witchcraft but also outside of it. Fiction writers can depend upon it being well-enough known that they can have a cowan character, with no special interest in religion or the occult, condemn a fictional self-described Wiccan for failing to obey it.20
Finally. In considering that Gardner’s comments on King Pasoule—the closest he comes to mentioning the Rede—are given as a view “witches are inclined to,” we are left to consider that some may hold the Rede to be descriptive rather than imperative; that Wiccans may tend to follow the Rede, but there is nothing to say that they have to.
Such descriptive readings in turn fall into two camps. Gardner’s description is observational rather than definitive, in his stating that “witches are inclined to” such an attitude, and in his general claim to be describing a group of witches that he became acquainted with, rather than any other witches that may have existed. Another form of descriptive use of the Rede makes it definitive of Wicca, or often of witches or even all Pagans. Scott Cunningham’s The Truth About Witchcraft Today21 goes as far as arguing that all folk magical traditions ascribed to a similar view to the legislative and mitigative readings of the Rede. Casual surveys of folk magic tends to find that, following a large number of cures for various diseases and ailments, the best represented practices are love charms, ways to escape bad fortune by passing it onto another, ways to curse another, and generally a large number of acts which many Wiccans would consider unethical, however they may view the Rede. But this has not stopped the Rede from being been pushed back, not just in Wiccan history, but in all proletarian occult history.
Opinions in all these regards are not clearly split along Innovative and Traditional lines. Nor are they always easy to determine. The Farrars open a discussion of ethics by quoting the Rede, but largely ignore it from that point on.22 Does their opening with the Rede mean they agree it is a central tenet, or does their focusing elsewhere mean they don’t see it as such?
The main difference between Innovative and Traditional practitioners in this regard is not which reading they hold to, if any, or indeed if they hold to yet another. Rather it is in the primacy the Rede holds in descriptions of their Craft. Traditional descriptions often mention the Rede, while Innovative descriptions almost always do so. Similarly, the ongoing debate on interpretations and their implications is common amongst the Traditional but much more so amongst the Innovative. It would seem that the Rede is important to both, but while it is seen as holding a core position by many Traditional Wiccans, that view is popular to near-typicality amongst Innovative Witches.
As stated above, debates on the extent to which Gardner learned, adapted, or invented both Wicca as a whole, and individual elements of Wiccan practice, are not in themselves of direct importance to this work. That there are such debates though, does have an impact.
There isn’t a strong consensus among either Traditional nor Innovative practitioners in this regard, though those who tend towards the more absolute position that Gardner invented Wicca out of whole cloth, would certainly be more prevalent among the latter than the former.
A more significant difference, is in terms of perceived implications of the positions of the debate, which in turn relate to how traditions themselves are perceived. To a Traditional view, the origin of a tradition is not of as much importance as the tradition itself. Whether a tradition dates to Gardner or more recently still, or whether it predates him, does not impact upon it being a tradition. To some who may wish to adopt traditions, this may not be of any significance either. To those, though, who see the continuance of tradition as important, but argue innovations by Gardner (or those that followed him, whether within the Gardnerian Tradition, or in one of the other Traditional Wiccan Traditions, such as Sanders) as not part of the “original” tradition, the matter of just what those innovations were, gains considerable more importance.
The question similarly gains importance as a rhetorical trope that can be used to justify differences from Traditional practice, while maintaining a claim to be continuing a wider tradition. While some claims to demonstrate an innovation during Gardner’s time will produce evidence for the claim (for example, by showing the source of a wording, which opens the possibility that not only the wording was novel, but also the underlying practice) others do not. In particular, should a form of witchcraft be found which differs from Gardner’s practices (and Cochrane’s practice, for example, is very different in many ways) this offers the argument that one is continuing the “real” practice while abandoning the aspect in question.
Comparing the use of tools between different Traditions requires us first to define just what is and isn’t a tool. This is less obvious than it might at first appear; while Traditional Wicca has eight tools—athamé, sword, wand, scourge, censer, pentacle, cords and boline—the exclusion of the cup from that list has been explained by Gardner as being for security reasons only,23 and there are also several other items commonly used in at least some cases. To any external view, the distinction between one of these items and a tool may not be clear, though to muddy the distinction is to abandon one of the subtler inheritances of Traditional Wiccans. With Innovative Witchcraft, there is often even less of a distinction as to just what is considered a tool and what isn’t; with items, particularly those such as cauldrons and besoms that popular culture also associates with witchcraft, being elevated to equal footing with such tools as the athamé and pentacle.
While the elemental associations of the athamé, wand, cup and pentacle gives those four a particular importance in some Innovative traditions, yet others downplay or remove one or more of these, particularly in treating the athamé and wand as interchangeable, and hence removing the need to have both.
Traditional Wiccan Traditions have set markings for many of the tools.24 While Traditional Wiccans will often personalise tools beyond these, and may even opt to depart from these traditions, (or mark the tools temporarily, and then remove the markings after consecration, following traditional advice on avoiding detection), these markings are seen as definitely part of the tradition, even when departed from.
Innovative Witchcraft, in comparison, generally lacks any such passing of traditional markings, though groups may adopt some as communal badges or shibboleths. While markings may be taken from published descriptions of Traditional Wicca, or such magical works as the Lesser Key of Solomon, in general Innovative Witch writers encourage purely personal markings such as one’s name in a magical alphabet. Traditional Wiccan writers are likely to suggest much the same thing,25 as it would correspond with the practice of personalising tools beyond traditional markings, and allow them to talk of the traditional practice without divulging Tradition-specific details of said markings.
In both Traditional and Innovative Witchcraft, there is value seen in creating one’s own tools were possible. In purely subjective terms, Innovative Witchcraft seems to me to both highlight the advantages to a greater extent, while also being most responsible for the creation of a market in manufactured tools sold explicitly for use in modern witchcraft, if only due to their numbers.
Additions of tools to Innovative Witchcraft tend to be either; promotions of items used by at least some Traditional Wiccans to being considered a tool, imports from other forms of witchcraft, such as the stang used in much Traditional Initiatory Witchcraft, or cultural borrowings.
In looking at tools that are sometimes dropped, or for which the traditions are otherwise heavily changed, the athamé, the wand and the scourge stand out.
The athamé has a prime place amongst the eight tools of Traditional Wicca. In particular, while other tools may be shared in use by all participants to a ritual, or only needed for those performing particular rôles, all Traditional Wiccans will have their own athamé, generally from at least the time of their initiations.26
This is common, but not universal, within Innovative Witchcraft. Silver Ravenwolf includes the athamé amongst her list of tools, but notes, “I do not use mine very often as I look upon knives in general as potentially harmful items, even in the kitchen”27 which suggests its place in her practice is so different to its place in Traditional Wicca as to be unrecognisable. She goes on to say that the “wand and the athame are basically interchangeable.” Arin Murphy-Hiscock meanwhile states, “Wiccans tend to use a wand or an athame, but not both.”28 This perhaps says as much about ambiguity over the use of the wand as it does attitudes towards athamés. Of those who state this view of the two as completely interchangeable, most seem to favour the wand, though Gary Cantrell states that “the wand is something I have never used.”29 It’s also notable in Murphy-Hiscock’s case, that she then goes on to say, “Some prefer the wand because it is less aggressive” and has previously stated, “Some solitary Wiccans don’t like using a knife at all; they feel that it is an aggressive weapon with no place in the loving practice of Wicca.”30 This distaste for blades will obviously weigh heavily on how extensively athamés are used in someone’s practice.
As well as having a less prominent place in some Innovative practice, there are two common differences in usage amongst both Traditional and Innovative practitioners that are worth noting.
The first is the question of whether athamés should be blunt or sharp. That Stewart Farrar mentions the practicality of having a dull blade, while he was still working with Alex and Maxine Sanders, would suggest that this mundane consideration was made, at least, relatively early in the Alexandrian Tradition, and perhaps by other Traditions as well. At the same time, he does still talk of people wishing to keep their athamé sharp to be “traditional,”31 which would seem to imply strongly that this dulling is purely a practical matter, and hence while it may be the norm, or even mandated within some covens, this dullness is not inherent to, or typical of, athamés. Indeed, the very description of keeping a blade sharp as “traditional” would suggest the opposite, with dulling being very much a concession to legal or safety concerns32.
For the most part, both Traditional and Innovative practitioners seem to share this view; dull blades are the norm, but this dullness is purely for practical reasons. The distinction is made less clear in some Innovative writings though; athamés are often described as “normally dull” but no reason is given, leaving a reader to perhaps surmise that this relates to properties of the athamé itself. Some descriptions are confusing in this regard; one author describes an athamé plainly as “a black-handled knife with a dull or blunt double-edged blade,” but then goes on to say “The blade will rarely, if ever, need to be sharpened because the athame is exclusively a ceremonial ritual tool and rarely actually cuts any kind of physical object.”33 This contradicts, since surely a deliberately dull blade is not rarely sharpened, but never sharpened, and never, rather than rarely, cuts a physical object; a never-sharpened blade may be so deliberately, but a rarely-sharpened blade is merely a neglected one. Perhaps she is considering those of differing practice when she writes of them “rarely” being sharp, but if so then this has not been made clear.
Descriptions of athamés as always being dull are more common on the web,34 with one page actually describing the author as going against tradition because she sharpens hers while, “This knife is traditionally never sharp.”35
Again, it is worth emphasising that dull blades are the norm amongst both Innovative and Traditional practitioners, while opting for sharp blades remains far from unheard of amongst either. The difference is in how some see such dullness as typical rather than merely common.
A bigger difference is in the material of the blades. Ferrous blades are the norm for both Innovative and Traditional use. But while some Traditional writers may concede the use of non-ferrous blades,36 it is generally a concession rather than an accepted practice amongst them, and many will quite firmly insist on steel. Not using steel is much more common amongst Innovative practitioners, and indeed non-ferrous blades are mandated by some Innovative traditions.
That iron has different magical properties to other metals, has long been held. Pliny the Elder writing circa 77 CE remarked:
Iron is employed in medicine for other purposes besides that of making incisions. For if a circle is traced with iron, or a pointed weapon is carried three times round them, it will preserve both infant and adult from all noxious influences: if nails, too, that have been extracted from a tomb, are driven into the threshold of a door, they will prevent night-mare.
At the same time, just as the properties it was held to possess made it particularly suitable for some purposes, so it made it particularly unsuitable for others:
Similar to savin is the herb known as “selago.” Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were in the act of committing a theft. The clothing too must be white, the Feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried also in a new napkin. The Druids of Gaul have pretended that this plant should be carried about the person as a preservative against accidents of all kinds, and that the smoke of it is extremely good for all maladies of the eyes.37
Of particular note here is the warding, apotropaic, qualities attributed to iron—ferrous metal is held to offer power over spirits—and that Pliny associates the use of selago, with its requirement of being picked without the use of iron, with the Druids. The Druids are even better known, again through the writings of Pliny, for their use of “golden sickles” in gathering mistletoe. While many have cast doubt upon the value of Pliny as a source on the Druids,38 the association with the Druids, and hence with “Celtic” traditions, has influenced Traditions that associate themselves with the Celts or the countries of the Celtic Fringe. Further, we can see the apotropaic quality of ferrous materials mentioned with particular regard to the fairies, in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “in the Highlands of Scotland the great safeguard against the elfin race is iron, or, better yet, steel.” This would clearly bias those who are inclined to see the fairies in a particularly positive manner to avoid all use of it.
Yet, this very same quality is exactly why one may wish to make use of it. Frazer above is, after all, giving a reason why steel is carried in the Highlands, not a reason why it is avoided, even though taboos on iron are his main concern in the chapter in question. The breadth of his survey of iron being so prized, makes it worth quoting more extensively:
But the disfavour in which iron is held by the gods and their ministers has another side. Their antipathy to the metal furnishes men with a weapon which may be turned against the spirits when occasion serves. As their dislike of iron is supposed to be so great that they will not approach persons and things protected by the obnoxious metal, iron may obviously be employed as a charm for banning ghosts and other dangerous spirits. And often it is so used. Thus in the Highlands of Scotland the great safeguard against the elfin race is iron, or, better yet, steel. The metal in any form, whether as a sword, a knife, a gun-barrel, or what not, is all-powerful for this purpose. Whenever you enter a fairy dwelling you should always remember to stick a piece of steel, such as a knife, a needle, or a fish-hook, in the door; for then the elves will not be able to shut the door till you come out again. So, too, when you have shot a deer and are bringing it home at night, be sure to thrust a knife into the carcase, for that keeps the fairies from laying their weight on it. A knife or nail in your pocket is quite enough to prevent the fairies from lifting you up at night. Nails in the front of a bed ward off elves from women “in the straw” and from their babes; but to make quite sure it is better to put the smoothing-iron under the bed, and the reaping-hook in the window. If a bull has fallen over a rock and been killed, a nail stuck into it will preserve the flesh from the fairies. Music discoursed on a Jew’s harp keeps the elfin women away from the hunter, because the tongue of the instrument is of steel. In Morocco iron is considered a great protection against demons; hence it is usual to place a knife or dagger under a sick man’s pillow.39
And indeed he goes on, though the above should suffice. As well as demonstrating the wide extent, and hence the normalcy, of such uses of ferrous metal, this is notable in two further ways. Firstly, it demonstrates that deliberately avoiding contact with fairies is the norm in folk traditions. Secondly, it shows that while iron was frequently taboo amongst priesthoods, it was a taboo that was deliberately broken by some; to use iron religiously or magically is to deal with the other worlds in a manner in which one does not supplicate to the forces of other planes, but deals with them actively and assertively, and perhaps even aggressively. It is to not just act as a priest, but also to act as a magician.40
Either extreme, of avoiding the use of ferrous metal, or of always using it, are both reasonable reäctions to the implications of this view of iron’s qualities, as also are many more moderate views. It is clear though, that the wider extremes are not easily reconciled.
In practice of course, many will be influenced merely by what they have read or observed from others as to how things are done, rather than by examining arguments for them. Steel appears to remain the norm amongst post-Gardnerian witchcraft generally, simply because it is the norm in Traditional Wicca, and because steel is the most frequently used metal by bladesmiths working with mundane purposes in mind. Those who are influenced by another tradition, such as Feri, by some forms of Druidy, or by a deliberate attempt to appease fairies, are therefore in the minority, and as such more likely to explicitly state a reason for avoiding ferrous materials. This is not always the case; Sirona Knight, in Faery Magick, states simply that, “the athame is a knife without iron or steel that is used to cut the magick Circle,”41 without being explicit that this non-ferrous requirement comes from the focus she has on fairies, and not a more general rule in witchcraft or magic.
An implication of those traditions that forbid the use of iron, is that they deal differently with fairies, and similar spirits, than do Traditional Wiccans and others who make use of iron. This is plainly true, but where a difference of opinion may arise is in how great this difference is. Those who make use of iron and steel may consider themselves on good terms with fairies, while some who forbid the use of iron may not consider this possible.
An extension of this aversion to anything that could be used as a weapon against fairies, could be an aversion to anything that could be viewed primarily, or at all, as a weapon. Which brings us to the wand. The decision by some to consider the wand as interchangeable with the athamé changes not just the view of the athamé but also the wand. There is a remarkable lack of explanation of what a wand actually is; reading much literature on the topic, it appears to be simply a “magic stick,” with no further history than that, except perhaps in the færie-tales and stage magic acts in which wands also appear. The explanation that a wand is a symbol of power, (most often of temporal power, being much the same as a regal sceptre or ceremonial mace), authority and command is rarely given. Rare too, is the probable origin in clubs, maces, and similar concussion weapons. Returning to the quote above, “Some solitary Wiccans don’t like using a knife at all; they feel that it is an aggressive weapon with no place in the loving practice of Wicca,” it would appear that this is not merely ignored, but completely unknown by at least some Innovative Witches, unless smashing somebody’s skull is somehow less aggressive than stabbing them. How this could come to be can only be guessed at. It is true that even in mundane use a wand is a stylised, symbolic weapon rather than an actual one, but this is also true of a dagger which is never actually used, especially if it is deliberately blunted—indeed all the more so; a relatively heavy wand would be just as good as a weapon as any other stick of the same dimensions, as it cannot be rendered less harmful, the same way blunting a blade does. It could perhaps be that viewing the wand as not being a weapon is valued, not only by those who would prefer to avoid weapons, but by others as well; perhaps this is seen as a sort of balance. Or they would prefer to downplay all weaponry, and while they cannot do so entirely in the more blatant case of the athamé, and the even more blatant case of the sword, they can in the case of the wand.
Notably, while the term weapon for tools, common amongst other magicians, is rare amongst Traditional Wiccans, it is almost entirely absent in the writings of Innovative Witches.
That the wand is made of wood perhaps allows for a connection to be drawn with the view of Wicca as a “nature religion” discussed in a later chapter. Still, in light of the lack of commentary on the matter, just what the wand is viewed as being beyond a “magic stick,” can only be a matter of conjecture.
The wand, in turn, naturally leads one to think about another weapon that became a symbol of authority; the scourge. The scourge is quietly omitted from many lists of tools by Innovative Witches, even where the authors mention others for completeness that they don’t use themselves, or are otherwise critical of traditions they describe concerning the tool in question.
Since a scourge is also physically a weapon of sorts, we would expect this aversion especially from those Innovative Witches who avoid or downplay athamés and swords. Also, in some cases this could be an aversion to associations with Roman Catholic flagellants, and mortification of the flesh—depending as it does upon an attitude to the body that would generally be rejected by Traditional and Innovative alike, including Gardner.42 Indeed, it could be that to some Innovative Witches the references in Traditional Wiccan practice to “purification” and the statement that, “one must be prepared to suffer to learn,” would sound more reminiscent of such Christian practices, than anything they consider fits well with Wicca.
When Innovative Witches explicitly reject the use of the scourge though, they more often draw analogy to BDSM, than to any religious practice. D J Conway begins a criticism of its use through the reliable trope of claiming that Gardner invented it, and then goes on to explain his supposed motives; “The scourge is not a traditional Witch tool and probably was invented by Gerald Gardner, who seemed to like scourgings,” and later “In my opinion, Gardner seems to have been obsessed with nudity, sex, and scourging, traits that may not have appeal to other Witches.”43 A J Drew, writing not just about the scourge, but including it in a highly speculative psychosexual profile of much Gardnerian practice, that he goes on to denounce, goes so far as to pronounce that Gardner was, “topping from the bottom,”44 which is a two-fronted attack, since he brings Gardner in line for condemnation from both those who disapprove of BDSM, and from the many in the BDSM community who have at least a degree of disdain for topping from the bottom. Drew takes care to state that he is not opposed to BDSM itself, though this tolerance seems of minimal value since he has just objected to the same sexual interests in someone upon no evidence apart from the circular argument that; Gardner must have an interest in BDSM because of the use of the scourge and binding, and that the reason for the scourge and binding must be due to his interest in BDSM.45
Such an analysis of the purpose of the scourge can only be justified46 if there aren’t other plausible reasons. It therefore makes sense to examine the scourge along the same lines that other elements of Wicca have also been regularly examined in books by Innovative Witches, and books by Traditional Wiccans that reached a wide audience.
One popular approach is to look at Palæopagan practices. In doing so, scourging and comparable whippings of various types can be found, of which the flogging of women by men on Lupercalia stands out as a cross-gender fertility rite. Another example, is the evidence, from the Villa of the Mysteries in Popeii, that scourging was used in the Eleusian Mysteries, which clearly stands out as particularly appropriate for an Initiatory Mystery Tradition. Yet another analogy would be to the crook and flail that symbolised pharaonic authority; since the reason for the flail being combined with the crook—which represented the Pharaoh’s rôle as provider and hence the merciful side of his authority—was that the Egyptians used flails to hurt prisoners and slaves—and hence representing the severe side of his authority—in which use it is essentially a scourge.
Another popular approach, is to look at contemporary or recent folk practices, especially if they are already held to have pre-Christian origins. An obvious example here would be the the Czech tradition of pomlázka, which is popularly47 held to originate in Lupercalia.
Another common approach, is to look upon the effects a practice may have upon the minds or bodies of practitioners. While this is one point where BDSM does allow an analogy—in terms of the altered state of mind generally referred to as sub-space48—this is nowhere explored by Innovative writings, and an analogy to Wiccan practice would be quite a stretch. However, a much more compelling analogy can be drawn to the long-standing traditional use of the vihta in Finnish saunas.
Yet another popular approach, is to compare a practice with those found in other religions. While the use of scourging in mediæval Catholicism may be seen as an inappropriate comparison by Innovative and Traditional alike, there are plenty of uses of much more painful ordeals than a light scourging to be found throughout the world. The Sundance ceremony stands out as often involving privations that would make even a much more severe scourging than is common in Wicca pale in comparison.
Similarly, comparisons with practices in the wider Western Mystery Tradition are often made. In this case we can look to Crowley’s regular mention of the scourge as a magical tool in Book Four, Part II, including a chapter entitled, “The Scourge, The Dagger and The Chain”49 or his listing in Liber 777 of the magical weapons associated with the number 5 and the Sephirah of Geburah as “The Sword, Spear, Scourge, or Chain.”50
A final popular approach, is to look at allegations made during witch-trials. Here scourging is found described in a variety of different tones.51
The above is far from exhaustive, nor is it meant to be; it suffices to demonstrate that, by the very same standards with which features of modern witchcraft are commonly justified in the available literature, very little effort is needed to show the scourge standing as a particularly well-supported tool. How can people who regularly research, and indeed publish, precedents for other features of Wicca, only arrive at a sole explanation of the use of the scourge that depends upon alleged aspects of Gardner’s sexuality, for which the only evidence is that same use of the scourge? In light of all the other evidence for its place in witchcraft we must conclude that this was quite deliberate.
Drew’s uneasy apology towards practitioners of BDSM perhaps hints at a reason for Innovative Witches to distance themselves, albeit sometimes not too much, from anything that they feel could hint at it; that they are afraid of being tarred by the same brush. Some though, may be equally afraid of being seen as prudish, (Drew feels the need to state outright that he isn’t a prude, and points to the fact that one of his friends is a dominatrix to prove it, with shades of the cliché of “some of my best friends are…”), or of exhibiting prejudice counter to current liberal attitudes to what may occur between consenting adults.52 As such, they’d much prefer if the whole matter could be swept under the carpet. If this is so, then the fact that claims of an association between the use of the scourge and BDSM never mention sub-space, is no surprise; that there could be such a connection between the two, that actually has potential value, would do more harm than good to such an attempt to distance themselves from it.
Ironically, such a fear of being labelled a pervert by someone else’s standard is not far removed from the motivation Gardner gave both for his writing, and for the New Forest Coven giving him permission to do so; “I have been told by witches in England: ‘Write and tell people we are not perverts…” and later he argues, “Nor do I think it fair to call witches dissipated perverts.”53
For Drew this smacks of the lady doth protest too much, but Gardner’s statement cannot be read correctly without reference to the context; that he was answering James Pennethorne Hughes having recently accused witches of just that. And for not reading it in this context there is little excuse, since Gardner quotes the allegation, “Some were perhaps dissipated perverts and had shame or guilty pride,”54 himself.
So here, we perhaps have the answer to the question. While someone studying Paganism, comparative religion, folklore, magic or ritual technique will inevitably come across countless analogies to the scourge, the same will not hold for cowans, particularly cowan writers and journalists, seeking lurid sensationalism. While some Innovative witches may have dropped the scourge out of fear, or distaste for the scourge itself, (or indeed, out of fear for their own desires if it hit upon repressed associations they personally harboured), a continual pressure towards dropping its use would come from that being easier than explaining to an audience potentially predisposed to believe a more titillating explanation. Even a defender of the scourge is also similarly motivated to avoid such associations being built up in the minds of outsiders. So then, he or she is immediately put on the defensive, and may hence not want to explore the allegation too much, for while it is easily refuted, as above, to do so must still give it expression.
The effect of losing the scourge probably has a more profound effect upon the degree to which Innovative Witchcraft is severed from Traditional Wicca than many may realise; whereas those who abandon the athamé are probably quite aware that they are stepping away from Traditional practice, the scourge has almost been “disappeared.” The silent abandonment of one of the eight tools of the Wicca no doubt colours many of the other differences in such matters as initiation, the Five-Fold Kiss and Drawing Down the Moon, along with altering much else of the numerology and other symbolism of the Craft, and removing some of the signposts to the Mysteries. That it stands as one of the most common differences between Traditional and Innovative practice, may seem to be of minor significance to those who have abandoned it, and crucial importance to those who have not.
Given the mystery tradition nature of Traditional Wicca, initiation holds a central position in several ways.
- The initiatory experience in itself offers exposure to the Mysteries.
- The initiatory experience is shared in that every initiate has also experienced it.
- The initiation marks membership of the tradition. The lineage, as well as defining such membership, can be used, by those who know of it, to ascertain that someone is indeed a member.
Given the third point in particular, it stands as a defining point of Traditional Wicca, not shared by Innovative Witchcraft. At one point, a common position amongst those with Traditional Wiccans was that only such an initiation could make one a witch at all. Now a much more common position is that Traditional Wiccans are witches, but not the only witches. While differences as to what makes one a witch are now less contentious in this regard, if still contentious in the lack of any consensus on exactly what actually does, comparisons between approaches to initiation in Traditional Wicca and Innovative Witchcraft continue to demonstrate the shadow of that earlier controversy.
In Innovative witchcraft initiation may be one of the following:
- Completely absent.
- Initiation that traces to a self-initiation.
- Initiation from which places one within a Traditional Wiccan lineage, but where at some point along that lineage Traditional Wiccan practices have been departed from.
- Initiation in a lineage that traces to a long standing witchcraft tradition that is not Wiccan.
These last three hold in common the quality of marking membership of the Innovative Witchcraft tradition in question, and also mark a shared experience within it. Beyond that it is difficult to comment further. Some may well expose someone to Mysteries, but whether this holds or not, and whether they are comparable to those experience by Traditional Wiccans is impossible to say.55
The case of no initiation could entail initiation, of whatever sort, being an ambition or it being merely seen as unimportant. If Innovative Witches simply view themselves as different to Traditional Wiccans, then there will be little in the way of disagreement between them and many Traditional Wiccans. However, deciding that initiation is not important will likely be on the basis of some sort of understanding of just what initiation is. This understanding could indeed be a bone of contention.
Scott Cunningham argues that, “True initiation isn’t a rite performed by one human being upon another.”56 Now, initiation in general is indeed a rite performed by one human being upon another, or more at a time. This is true not only of Traditional Wicca, and other initiatory traditions of witchcraft, but also of just about every religion or magical order for which there is any concept of initiation. Even the Shahada of Islam, while not strictly a rite, and as something one does by oneself, requires the presence of witnesses. The qualifier, “true,” implies that Cunningham is writing about something beyond the form of ritual. He continues:
Many of the Wicca readily admit that the ritual initiation is the outer form only. True initiation will occur weeks or months later, or prior to, the physical ritual.
Since this is so, “real” Wiccan initiation may take place years before the student contacts a Wiccan coven or teacher.
Here, it is clear that what is being referred to is not the ritual of initiation, and hence not initiation as it would generally be understood by any religion, student of religion, or anthropologist, but rather the spiritual or psychic effects it is held to produce. He goes on to add:
Rest assured, it’s quite possible to experience a true Wiccan initiation without ever meeting another soul involved in the religion. You may even be unaware of it.
This is a bit of a stretch. It is indeed held by many in initiatory traditions, that the spiritual or psychic effects can occur out of synch with the initiation, and indeed by some, that it may occur before the actual ritual. This still entails the ritual happening at some point.
Finally though, after some indistinct waxing about what this effect may be, he concludes:
When the Old Ways have become a part of your life and your relationship with the Goddess and God is strong, when you have gathered your tools and performed the rites and magic out of joy, you are truly of the spirit and can rightly call yourself “Wiccan.”
This may be your goal, or you may wish to stretch yourself further, perhaps continuing your search for an instructor.
In the midst of musing on how such an initiatory effect could affect someone, it has ceased to be an initiatory effect. Cunningham has not actually made an argument that initiation is not necessary. Rather, he has started with a somewhat mystical statement that the effects of initiation may take place before an initiation ritual, then lost this thread of argument amidst talking about other mystical experiences one may have, and so when he then picks up the thread of argument again, he appears on casual reading to have argued that initiation is not important, while in fact he had made no such argument, but merely a rhetorical sleight of hand.
At the same time, he does not make any statement confidently. He argues both that initiation is not necessary, and indeed hints that it doesn’t even convey an advantage, but also describes the possibility of obtaining initiation as, “stretching oneself further,” which suggests at least a considerable advantage in doing so.
This tension, of both valuing and devaluing initiation, arises often when people try to talk about the question with any degree of neutrality, if they take this approach that the experience of initiation can happen without the ritual. As such, it can be expected to provoke negative reäctions, in both the initiated and the uninitiated, alike.
Self-initiation takes yet a different approach to the position of non-Initiates, by allowing them to perform the rite themselves.
This is a curious blend of two different practices that have always existed in magical practice. There have always been people who have developed magical practices from a mixture of observed folk practice and personal gnosis and always will be. Nor are ceremonial practices solely the work of initiates, as people may work alone from material such as Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy without initiation. Indeed, it is unclear whether it refers to acts performed only by initiates or not.57 There have also, no doubt, always been people who either claimed to be initiates without any such initiation having actually occurred, or who to some degree falsified, or at least euphemised, the exact nature of genuine initiations they had undergone. Some may well have honestly felt that they did not need another person to initiate them, but saw fudging the matter as a practical tactic in engaging with other initiates, (some of whom they may have suspected were doing the same thing), but they at least saw initiation as having enough communal value as a shibboleth, if nothing else, that it was worth lying about or exaggerating.
Where self-initiation is relatively novel, is in how it blends these two streams. It both values initiation enough to perform a rite of initiation, yet dismisses entirely, or reduces from essential to merely advantageous, the entire concept of initiation as something which is passed, or something which welcomes the postulant into a group. Self-initiation as such, creates an initiatory lineage of one.
The most immediate question, is whether this is actually possible at all. By any Traditional Wiccan definition it cannot be. Adopting Traditional Wiccan initiation for solitary use requires more than a few physical impossibilities, along with abandoning one of the elements of continuity that defines the traditions.
In a more general sense, it depends on what one means by initiation. In its being the noun form of initiate as in “to begin,” then there can indeed be such a thing as a self-initiation. Some purely magical systems make use of self-performed rites explicitly for this, and this alone.58 In comparison to how the word initiation is meant in the context of any other religion or culture, then a self-initiation is not possible; to initiate is not merely to put in but to bring in, and depends on the people doing so being in a position of already being, “on the inside,” themselves.
It is perhaps for this reason that the term, self-initiation, is losing favour amongst even those Innovative Witches who do not see the need for an initiatory lineage. Rather, self-dedications, are becoming more common again as the limit of what introductory rite one may perform on oneself.
Within Traditional Wicca, the governing of any coven is very much in the hands of the High Priestess, with the High Priest in a supporting rôle to that authority. Since, the High Priestess and High Priest would, by necessity, have a certain level of experience, and have been considered by a previous elder to have the demonstrated the ability to fulfil the rôle, this is integral to the mechanism of communication of the traditions themselves.
There are two pressures that may lead to Innovative covens operating differently. The first, is that with some Innovative covens the differential in experience between the most senior and most junior members, that such a system assumes, may not exist. There may hence be no obvious choice for the positions.
The hierarchical nature of the Traditional system of coven government may also be seen as inherently undesirable, with there being a preference for elected, rotated, consensus-based governance, or some other structure that could be deemed more democratic.
A clear incentive towards such democratic models, is with analogy to other contexts for government, particularly national legislatures. Such an analogy can tempt one towards the comparable analogy with dictator-led nations, colouring some outside views of Traditional covens, and those Innovative covens with a similar hierarchical structure, very negatively indeed.
Traditional Wicca pairs male and female practitioners in several ways; in the coupling of a High Priest and High Priestess, in the alternation between men and women at various points, and in initiation being from man to woman, and woman to man.
Some reasons for some Innovative practitioners deliberately departing from this are explored later in this work. Apart from those reasons, there are practical considerations that may lead to male–female pairings being abandoned or continued. Solitary witches will obviously not be capable of utilising any such male–female pairing. Other groupings may be male-only or, perhaps more often, female-only, not by design, but just by accident of who people manage to meet with a shared interest in witchcraft, given both gender imbalance often remarked upon in those interested, and the tendency of many people to develop more friendships with people of the same sex as themselves.
Contra to this, after solitaries the next most common grouping is probably life-partners who work as a couple. With male–female couples being in the majority generally, this will inevitably lead to a large number of couples working as a male–female pair.
The greeting and valediction, “Blessed Be,” is almost as much a signifier of someone’s involvement in some form of Post-Gardnerian witchcraft, as pentagram jewelry. While it appears in popular culture, such as in the television shows Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is not much adopted by, nor preëxistant in, groups who do not identify themselves as witches, which does happen with the pentagram, and so serves as a shibboleth of sorts.
While this valediction comes from the Five-Fold Kiss, the Five-Fold Kiss itself does not have the same degree of prevalence. Solitary use would of course preclude it, and many of the other differences to Traditional Wicca discussed in this section remove context for it.
Even when contexts do exist for it, it may still be departed from. Conway offers the following suggestion:
Some individuals and groups may wish to dispense with this part of the ritual and substitute kneeling at the feet of the High Priestess/Priest and simply kissing her/his feet as a sign of respect. However, I am not fond of using the foot-kissing part either, as I feel that this encourages a feeling of class or degree importance that is not appropriate in Wicca. I prefer to simply give a kiss of greeting on the lips.59
This departs in several ways. The first, is that the foot-kissing of the Five-Fold Kiss is not equivalent to the kissing of a foot as an obeisance, as found in other cultures. Removed from the context of the wording that accompanies the Five-Fold Kiss, the meaning is completely changed. Indeed, stripped of such context, it could actually introduce a class-difference, such as Conway complains about here.
This talk of, “class or degree importance,” of course touches upon different attitudes to hierarchy, but in this case it is somewhat of a red herring, ignoring as it does the differing contexts in which the Five-Fold Kiss is given. As every Traditional Wiccan initiate will have received the Five-Fold Kiss, it is hardly likely that the, “foot-kissing part,” of the Kiss encourages anti-egalitarian feelings—quite the opposite—though the suggested revision of it above could well do so.
Ultimately, a kiss on the lips is just simply not a Five-Fold Kiss, and neither physically nor verbally comparable. A kiss could perhaps stand for the Five-Fold Kiss, but only if those using such a substitution were already familiar with it in full.
Apart from the fact that the male–female polarity behind the Five-Fold Kiss does not suit all groups (in which case why not just remove the male–female polarity of the Kiss as well?), Conway seems sure that many groups may wish to depart from this practice, but does not actually give any reason why. Her work does however show a continual desexualisation of practice, to the point that any kiss one would not give to an elderly maiden aunt while in polite company does not fit into her version of the Craft.
Drawing Down the Moon is a key focal point of Traditional Wiccan rites, making its absence from many published Innovative Rites therefore of particular interest. One influence on this is perhaps the impossibility of performing it in the Traditional Wiccan manner, where the High Priest draws down into the High Priestess, in the case of solitary working. Another could be the difficulty in teaching the technique through textual media. Edain McCoy’s Lady of the Night60 makes an attempt at teaching what she labels, “Drawing Down the Moon,” that is essentially a solitary meditative technique. With an extent of one paragraph on how to do so, and another warning that anything that feels in any way negative almost certainly can’t, in her opinion, be considered a goddess, there is very little focus on it, in a book which specifically about ways for Pagan witches to work with the moon. The text I found with the most to say on the subject was Ann Finnin’s avowedly non-Wiccan, The Forge of Tubal Cain.61 While this book discusses drawing down at some length, it does not provide a how-to, or even attempt to, but describes experiences and difficulties students learning the technique in a coven context may have, and how their teachers will help them to deal with them.
Given the lack of Drawing Down of the Moon in many Innovative rites, and the difference between it and the Traditional Wiccan form in many others, it is perhaps a wonder that the Charge of the Goddess remains common throughout Innovative Witchcraft. While many Innovative liturgies lack a place for it, innumerable variants can be found throughout Innovative writings, both in print and online. It would seem that, at least as a written text, it has become a significant piece of Wiccan inheritance, even appearing in popular culture artefacts, such as the sleeve-notes of a musical album.62
While examining many features of Traditional Wicca will find various departures from them amongst Innovative Witchcraft, and some of these are quite remarkable, in the case of the dates of the Sabbats. what is more remarkable is how little departure there is. At most there are some minor differences concerning whether Imbolc should be considered the 1st or the 2nd of February, whether near-by dates of greater significance locally, such as St. John’s Day in the case of the Summer Solstice, should be used, and as to the degree of importance ascribed to the astronomical accuracy of equinoxes and solstices. While various theories exist in the wider Neopagan community as to astronomical calculations of the non-astronomical sabbats,63 and there is much potential inspiration from folklore holidays and Palæopagan festivals, such as the feast days of particular gods and goddesses, Innovative Witches tend to stick to the eight known to the majority of Traditional Wiccans. Despite the common justification that Gardner may have (or “must have” or plainly stating that he did), invented various features of Wicca, which can therefore be dropped again while still considering oneself to be following Wiccan tradition, four of the eight sabbats are indeed an early innovation of the Gardnerian tradition, according to Frederic Lamond:
…I asked Gerald why we celebrated the cross-quarter days instead of the solstices and equinoxes. “You can celebrate these if you want to,” said Gerald, “but it would be at odds with the climate in which we live….
We [the Bricket Wood Coven] liked our feasts, so after Gerald’s return to the Isle of Man in the spring 1958 we decided to celebrate both the cross quarter days and the solstices and equinoxes with feasts….64
There is of course considerable differences in how each Sabbat is celebrated, as is to be expected as the Sabbats offer one a framework with which to address the turning seasons, and differing groups with, differing concerns, will inevitably use that framework differently. The most remarkable difference between Traditional and Innovative, is that of names chosen, since again there is a relatively strong consensus within Innovative Witchcraft.
Originally, Traditional Wiccans used names that would be understood in the context of English culture, (May Day, Candlemas, etc.). The Farrars adopted Irish names, such as Samhain and Lughnasadh, as they were living in Ireland, and advised that others make similar adoptions, so as to keep one’s practice local, to either one’s current locale or one’s homeland.65 Many seem to have ignored their advice, but taken their examples, and so the Irish names are in very common use amongst the Traditional, and even more so amongst the Innovative. As such, the terms have become English loan-words particularly associated with Wicca, and other forms of Paganism.
Yule holds a middle-ground position, being a modern English word, but a relatively obscure one, and hence becoming Pagan linguistic “property.” This left the summer solstice and the equinoxes with the same mundane names that everyone else had for them. Of course, outside of a few specialities, everyone else didn’t really have call to use them very often, but within Innovative Witchcraft there was widespread adoption of Aidan Kelly’s coinages; Ostara, Litha and Mabon.
These last three terms are somewhat conjectural. Ostara comes from Bede, via Jacob Grimm, and is based on Bede’s theory that Eostur-monath, the Anglo-Saxon month roughly coïncident with April in the modern Gregorian calendar, may have been named after a goddess, Eostre. Beyond the comment from Bede, it is hard to say anything about this goddess. Grimm has a point when he says, “It would be uncritical to saddle this father of the church, who everywhere keeps heathenism at a distance, and tells us less of it than he knows, with the invention of these goddesses,”66 But on the other hand, there is no real evidence to show firmly that he didn’t, or that some scholarly misunderstanding didn’t lead to a belief amongst the Christian Anglo-Saxons that their recent Pagan ancestors worshipped goddesses of these names, when in fact they did not. Bede may be Venerable, but he is not infallible, and in the absence of any primary source, or even any corroborating secondary source, conclusions cannot be drawn with much confidence.
Litha also comes from Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxon calendar, specifically from se Ærra Liþa (June), se Æfterra Liþa (July), and the intercalendary Liþa that appeared after these on leap years. This suggests that Litha may mean “summer,” though Bede himself suggests it means calm or mild, (which would make it cognate with the modern English lithe as it relates to weather; now almost an obsolete sense), and also to travel, (making it cognate with lead):
Lida dicitur blandus, sive navigabilis, quod in utroque mense et blanda sit serenitas aurarum, et navigari soleant æquora.67
Litha means “gentle” or “navigable”, because in both those months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.68
Finally, Mabon was adopted from the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron.
These three names are each relatively rare amongst Traditional Wicca, but probably the most common names in Innovative Witchcraft by a large margin. Beyond that, other names are often adopted or invented to match particular cultures, but each of these are rare. More often, one may find lists of various names for the same holiday, but some of these are rare in witchcraft practice, (e.g. Iolo Morganwg’s coinage Alban Elfed which is often used in Druidry), and seem to be listed more for inclusiveness, and to encourage the ideology of actively engaging in a high degree of syncretism that is popular amongst some streams of Innovative Witchcraft.
It has long since been accepted that Wiccans should not charge money for the Craft. The exact interpretation of this has differed. Some have felt that any attempt to make money from anything associated with witchcraft, such as receiving royalties for a book written as a witch, breaks this rule,69 or else drawing the line at any occult or paranormal expertise. Most will not condemn this, after all anyone can write a book on witchcraft; being a witch isn’t necessary for this, though it does obviously give you a different perspective on the topic. Most occult techniques are practised by many cowans, including those, such as astrology, tarot reading and scrying, that are most often done for a fee. Even when witches are criticised as being overly concerned with commercial success, this is normally seen as inappropriate because it leads to what the critic considers to be poor choices, rather than as them having broken this rule; it is cupidity rather than commerce that is criticised, much as often happens to artists and others who must balance commercial value against other concerns.
Charging money becomes much more controversial where actual magic is done. To charge for performing a spell for another would be very controversial, even if the method used was borrowed from a tradition that allowed for such charging, while to sell an item that has been consecrated or otherwise, “energised,” leads to complicated questions about whether the price is for the item only, or also for the magical work.70 The question can become more difficult still when we think about the attention and intent that any good craftsman, especially one that also has magical training, will put into any item he or she produces.
Where charging money is much less accepted, is in terms of initiation, training leading directly to initiation, or where some sort of tithing is used. To find Traditional Wiccans doing so is very hard, much easier is to find Traditional Wiccans objecting to the very idea that it might happen, along with often pointing out suspicions about the credentials about those who claim to be charging for Traditional Wiccan initiation.71
This is much the same in many Innovative traditions, though the differences as to what initiation is, if it exists at all, in such practices can muddy this. If, as the forward claims, working with Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft can make one “the equivalent to a Third Degree,”72 does this mean that charging for the book can be taken as in any way equivalent to charging for initiation. If not, does this mean one could base a tradition on such material, and charge for passing on such instruction before performing an initiation ceremony for the student? The Traditional answer is most likely to start with stating that they don’t see working with Buckland’s book to be the equivalent of a Third Degree. For that matter, those Traditional Wiccans that write books, teach courses, make videos, and so on, may feel that this can sit with their oaths, precisely because the materials produced are not equivalent to anything that will make one of any degree. To the final question, they’re likely to either opine that nothing has made it acceptable to charge for initiation, or else to merely conclude that since they don’t see such a tradition as Wicca, it’s none of their concern whether it is charged for or not.
Most Innovative opinion is not likely to approve of such charging either. As models for the teaching of witchcraft change though, charging for initiation, or at the very least for the training that leads directly to it, is likely to become more common. This is done by the Correlian Nativist Church, and given the ties it once had to Witch School, it is hard to see how it could have used that model for training and not charge, unless there was a substantial supporting income from another source.
This issue alone places the Correlians outside of the mainstream of Innovative Witchcraft, but unless they and others that share that model disappear soon, which they show no sign of doing, such a heterodoxy is likely to grow. What is not clear, is whether in the future they will be seen as being very much outside of Innovative Witchcraft, much as Innovative Witchcraft is seen as outside of Traditional Wicca, or whether they will influence Innovative Witchcraft to be increasingly accepting of such monetary charges.
- [OED 2005]
- For example, President Mary McAleese, speaking at a commemoration of the Battle of Kinsale, 22nd September, 2001.
- [Fitch 2002]
- Scholars often examine the roots of any idea and compare them with earlier material, including some that did not have as much impact, or that later faded into relative obscurity. Amongst radicals (who enjoy iconoclasm), and Pagans (who often argue both against the novelty of Christian practices, and for the antiquity of their own), this leads to a habit of attempting to establish who or what “really” started any given tradition, underestimating the importance not just of proclaiming something, but of also finding adherents, without which there is no tradition. Whatever one may argue about the precedents of the Law of Thelema, or other Thelemic artefacts, Thelema as a tradition was started by Crowley, not by Rabelais or St. Augustine.
- [Buckland 1974]
- [Camaralzman 2002]
- [Grimassi 2008]
- In the Old World, we’ve absorbed enough artefacts of modern American culture to be aware that the history of the colonial “pilgrims” is much celebrated and heavily taught in American schools, but not quite enough for a comparable fluency with that history itself to be common here.
- [Anne 2007]
- The practice of healing by laying on of hands via televisual broadcast seems a particularly American religious practice. Perhaps more significant still, is the eschatological doctrine of The Rapture, a concept found primarily amongst Fundamentalist groups—despite a lack of scriptural evidence complained of by other Fundamentalists—and in many ways comparable to a particularly American view of protected rights. While English in origin, the relatively small impact the doctrine has had outside of the United States and Canada makes it much restricted to American Fundamentalism; a spiritual equivalent of the expecting the “god-given” rights of tax-paying citizens to be protected. Perhaps the climate described above made the development of such a theory more likely.
- Differing accounts disagree on whether Alexandrian comes from Sanders’ first name or the Library of Alexandria.
- [Kennedy 1960]
- [Thompson 1975]
- At the most optimistic, this seems to follow from assumptions about people’s success in following the laws of their religion, that would have us live in a world where Christians never lied, Muslims never discriminated against Jews, and Buddhists never shot unarmed terrorist suspects in cold blood. History suggesting otherwise quite clearly, we must conclude by analogy that Wiccans will indeed do harmful acts whatever someone might say about the Rede.
- At the most cynical, this gives people a mechanism by which they can dismiss people whose actions they disagree with as not “Real Wiccans,” just as others will be dismissed by their coreligionists as not “Real Christians,” not “Real Buddhists,” and so on.
- At the most pessimistic, we can merely conclude that people are making claims for Wiccans as morally unimpeachable that few cowans will be foolish enough to believe.
- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law
Love is the Law, Love under Will
- [Crowley 1904]/[Crowley 1989a]
- [Gardner 1959]
- [Cochrane 1966b]
- [Renshaw 2007]
- [Cunningham 1988b]
- [Farrar & Farrar 1984]
- [Gardner 1954]
- [Buckland 1986]
- op cit.
- [Ravenwolf 1993]
- [Murphy-Hiscock 2005]
- [Cantrell 2001]
- op cit.
- [Farrar 1971]
- Some who insist on using a sharp knife will maintain that a blunt blade can in many ways be more dangerous than a well-handled sharp one.
- [Nock 2005]
- [Andreanna 1999], [Dragonmoondesigns 1996] & [Tiamat 1998]
- [Twilight 2006]
- [Farrar & Farrar 1984]
- [Sutton & Mann 2000], [Hutton 2003] & [Hutton 2007]
- [Frazer 1922]
- If someone wanted to determine a term for a magician who deliberately broke priestly taboos he or she might well, depending on their own prejudices, arrive at the word witch.
- [Knight 2002]
- [Gardner 1949]
- [Conway 2001]
- [Drew 2002]
- Hutton used the more straightforward approach to trying to deduce someone’s sexual interests of examining his choice in erotica. The conclusion was that there was no evidence of any such preference ([Hutton 1999]).
- Robert Cochrane made much the same allegation, ([Cochrane 1966a]), but given his much-stated antipathy towards Wicca he would be motivated to see things in the worse possible light, while those who identify themselves as Wiccan should surely be motivated otherwise, which makes the allegations more remarkable in such cases.
- By which I mean that I can find hundreds of statements of such an association, but nothing authoritative. The association is certainly well-known amongst the Czechs and perhaps more conclusive scholarship on the matter is available in the Czech language.
- An experience of a severe loss of ego and self-control, in extreme cases combined with physical sensations such as that of flying. While providing independent evidence to the value of scourging as a means to obtain an altered state, most reports involve a greater degree of force being used than any description from Wiccan literature, along with very different psychological settings.
- [Crowley 1912]
- [Crowley 1909]
- [Cavendish 1967]
- Of course the prevalence of such attitudes is relatively novel. It may be worth considering the debates that continue within Feminism, on whether and how a politics which rejects uneven power dynamics can tolerate people voluntarily opting to engage in just such an uneven dynamic. While increasing numbers of Feminists will defend BDSM, they are far from representing any sort of consensus, and those opposed to it, or seeing it as at least potentially dangerous, would have had a still stronger voice when Feminism and witchcraft were first influencing each other, as described later. The allegation that the scourge originates in minority sexual preferences could also owe something to this.
- [Gardner 1954]
- [Pennethorne Hughes 1952], as quoted in [Gardner 1954].
- I can offer a personal experience, having been both initiated into an Alexandrian coven and earlier into an Innovative coven that had Gardnerian lineage, but had broken from Gardnerian practice. I am limited both by what I can express and what I would be prepared to say. All I can really say on the matter is that with the Innovative initiation, there was “something to it,” but that it does not much compare to having been initiated into a Traditional Wiccan coven, and that it is most definitely possible to have an elevation that does not have “something to it.” This limited anecdotal remark must suffice in a matter where research cannot.
- [Cunningham 1988a]
- [Hutton 2003]
- [Barrabbas 2007]
- [Conway 2001]
- [McCoy 1996]
- [Finnin 2008]
- [O’Connor 1994]
- e.g. [Druidschool 2006]
- [Lamond 2005]
- [Farrar & Farrar 1981]
- [Grimm 1888], referring not just to Eostre and also Hrede, in whose honour Bede claims the preceding month of Rhedmonath is named.
- [Bede 725]
- [Wallis 1999]
- [Adler 1997]
- [Farrar & Farrar 1984]
- [Alder Stand 2004]
- [Buckland 1986]