One of the topics that comes up a lot is the question of whether it’s better to do ritual inside or outside, and why. This article talks about ways I look at where to do ritual, and offers some practical advice to make sure you look at all the different safety and logistical considerations.
What are you planning to do?
There are two ways to start looking at location – one is by looking at the weather, and deciding what you can do given that weather. The other is to start by looking at what you’d like to do, and deciding where the best place to do it is. I generally prefer the second option, because it’s the one I have a bit more control over.
How flexible is your timing?
If you’re working by yourself, you may have a lot of flexibility to find a good patch of weather that’s likely to last as long as you need to do your ritual work. By using the traditional ‘the full moon can be celebrated for 3 days, the day of the full moon, and a day on either side’, for example, you might be easily able to find half an hour or an hour of good weather at a time you’re free.
However, if you’re working with other people (who need to be available at the same time and probably need to plan other things in their lives around that), or if you want to do something at a very particular day/time (a particular astrological timing, for example), planning to work inside may make more sense, unless you’ve got reliably good weather.
How long do you need to be outside?
Different ritual practices take different amounts of time. If what you want to do is quite quick (say, under 10-15 minutes), you have a lot of options for outside time. Even if the weather is not good, you can usually bundle up long enough to stay warm and dry and safe for that long.
However, if what you want to do is going to take longer, it can be more complicated to be outside. If you need to use your hands, being outside for very long in sub-freezing temperatures without gloves is not good for your health. Meditating (or anything else that involves sitting quietly) can make you get cold very quickly, too. On the other end of the weather, a physically active ritual outside in high temperatures and humidity can get you into trouble with heat stroke quite fast.
What’s your location?
Someone’s backyard is a different setting from their living room – and both are quite different than a city park or a larger state park or rural area. You’ll need to think about different aspects of privacy, safety, and weather considerations depending on which one you’re in.
How much physical stuff do you need?
Some people’s ritual practices involve a certain amount of physical stuff – candles, altar tools, images, and so on. These things can be lovely inside, but outside, the wind and weather can offer a lot of challenges. If you’re working outside, you need to make sure that altar cloths are weighted down, that candles won’t blow out, that lighter objects won’t blow over or away if the wind picks up. And of course, it takes time to set these things up and pack them away, so if a storm blows in quickly, you may have to scramble to get everything under cover (and some things may get ruined.)
If you’re using much less in the way of physical objects (or they’re all things that won’t be damaged much by being wet), you have a lot more in the way of options for working outside.
Are there any restrictions imposed by the location?
For example, public parks can be a great place for outdoor ritual (since they give you outdoor space, but some covered pavillion options if the weather turns bad, plus things like bathrooms). However, parks often have their own restrictions. Some require a permit to use the facilities and it can be complicated to schedule those permits. Others forbid alcohol, glass, or other items.
Likewise, if you’re using someone’s private property, they may have limits on what you can do, or where you can do it. Or there may be other restrictions in place (like a burn ban if the area is very dry.)
What’s the weather like?
One of the most basic questions when we look at doing ritual outside is the weather. If you live somewhere where the climate is quite moderate for much of the year, you’ll have more reasonable choices than somewhere that gets either very cold or very hot for a chunk of the year. (Or both, as some places do!)
How stable is the weather?
Some places, the weather is not very predictable. Can you figure out what the weather will be like enough in advance that you can plan accordingly? Is it possible that a rain shower or other bad weather might blow in quickly and without warning?
In some places, the weather is generally quite mild and predictable. In other places, it can vary quite a lot on the same day in different years. (For example, May 1st here has been 65 F and sunny some years, and on others, it’s been 35F and a rain/snow mix). Many places have some seasons which vary widely, and some seasons that are more stable.
Do you have shelter nearby?
You might make different decisions about your plans depending on where you’re going to be. For example, you might plan to try and do ritual outside more often if you’re doing it somewhere with shelter (or an indoor location) that’s easily accessible, like working in the back yard, but moving into someone’s basement or family room if the weather turns nasty. If you’re going to be miles out in the country or a park with no shelter nearby, you want to be a lot more certain of the weather for the day before you haul everything out there.
Some things you especially want to think about include:
Heat: If the temperature will be over about 90F, you want to think carefully about heat illnesses (heat exhaustion, heat stroke) and sun burn. If you’re going to be outside for more than a handful of minutes, you should plan to make sure you have plenty of water, and that people can sit/rest in the shade if they need to. Young children or people taking some medications can also be especially sensitive to heat.
Cold can also be quite dangerous very quickly. While extreme cold is obviously a problem, the most common time to have problems with hypothermia is if the temperature is in the 40s to low 60s (F) and drizzly/damp. An extended ritual outdoors in this weather can be quite risky for people who don’t dress for the weather or who are sensitive to cold.
And of course, if it’s very cold (below freezing, basically), you don’t want to expose your skin to the weather for any length of time. This means that anything that involves delicate hand motions (writing, lighting candles, pouring liquid, passing food or drink around, using tools, etc.) is probably better kept for better conditions or inside.
Wind can also complicate things. Besides the problems noted above with managing altar items and tools in a strong wind, wind also makes it harder to hear what’s going on, and it can make a cooler temperature feel much colder.
Rain is both pretty miserable to be out in, and can make cold much worse, especially if people are wearing cotton (which stops insulating when it’s wet) as opposed to wool (which will continue to insulate.) And of course, it makes it hard to do anything that involves paper (reading a meditation, divination decks, etc.)
Severe weather is also important to take into consideration. Does your area get severe thunderstorms blowing in quickly? Tornadoes? Forest fires (and the related smoke?) Blizzard conditions or flash floods? If that’s the case, you’ll want to know how to handle those conditions if they come up, and have a back-up plan if they’re predicted.
How much privacy do you need?
One of the other big factors in working outside is privacy. Sometimes, this isn’t a big deal. For example, wandering outside, sitting down, closing your eyes, and meditating doesn’t look that unusual if you’re in your backyard. However, setting up several altars outside, chanting, saying ritual phrases, and using a range of tools is a lot more obvious.
What are you planning to do? How obvious is it to an outside observer that you’re doing something religious or spiritual that might be new to them? A quiet meditation or libation can be done without attracting a lot of attention. A more formal group ritual with singing, different responses, or lots of obvious tools may not be a good fit for your back yard if your neighbors can see everything.
Who can see you? Neighbors you have a good relationship with, or someone who’s been looking for an excuse to make trouble for you? If you’re working with other people, do they feel comfortable if someone notices what you are doing together?
How much noise and distraction will there be? You might be fine with the fact your neighbors can see you – but what about if they have a party that night? Would you be comfortable doing what you plan with lots of different noises coming from the party?
How will you handle questions? Groups doing outdoor ritual often designate one or two people to answer questions (from curious passerby, park police, etc.) If you’re working in a backyard, you will want to be prepared to talk to your neighbors if they have any questions. Often, the unknown is a lot scarier to people than the known, so having a brief, simple explanation like “I’m having some friends over to honor the first day of spring” can smooth things over a little. Knowing your neighbors and being a good neighbor in other ways can definitely help a lot too.
Are there any safety concerns?
All locations have some safety considerations, but working outside offers some additional things you should think about in your planning. Working in your backyard is usually pretty safe (and if it isn’t, help is nearby), but if you choose to work in a more remote location (off the track in a park, or more rural land), you’ll need to have additional plans in place.
- Do you have any health conditions that are more complicated outside? For example, someone with asthma or allergies may be more prone to problems outside than inside. Those with mobility challenges may find working outside a lot more tiring, even if the site is accessible to them (and they aren’t always.)
- What would happen if you hurt yourself and needed help? (Anyone can twist an ankle!)
- Are there any concerns from wildlife (bears, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, etc.) Do you know how to handle these in the best way possible, and how to get help?
- Can you identify poisonous plants, as well as places wasps, biting ants, scorpions, or other insects that can cause problems live?
- Do you need to pay attention to mosquito or tick carried illnesses? How will you handle that? (These days, this is just as much an issue in suburbia…)
- If you’ll have a pet with you, do you know how to keep them safe as well?
- Are there burn bans or other seasonal considerations you should be aware of? (Air quality warnings, severe weather advisories, and other area warnings are important too.)
- Do you have appropriate training/resources to handle bathroom needs, food safety, and other related things safely as needed? Do you have a complete first aid kit that will be on site?
- If you’re going to be a fair distance away from help (like in a state park), is someone there trained in first aid, and can people give clear directions if you do need to call an ambulance or other help?
Working with others:
Working with others can be a wonderful thing – but when we do, we need to remember that they may have different needs or requirements than we do. We also (as noted above) need to remember that we’re going to have to schedule in advance, so we may not have the best weather.
Things to be especially thoughtful about:
- Are there people who are sensitive to cold?
- Or those who feel the heat or overheat easily?
- Are people all in good health, or do they have some health considerations that change based on the environment?
- Is anyone who’s going to be there at particular risk due to age? (Both older people and those under about the teen years can be especially vulnerable to heat, cold, air quality, or other climate or outdoor health issues.)
- How much energy do they have? (Working outside generally takes more energy and exertion, because it takes more effort to set things up, move things, etc.)
- Do people need a chance to sit down? If so, they’ll need to bring folding chairs outside, which takes extra energy and planning.
- Does anyone have mobility issues that limit their access to the site? Some people can’t handle hills or rough ground easily.
- Does anyone have allergies to pollen or anything else that may make them miserable to be outside? (Pollen, smoke, molds, etc. can all have a big impact.)
- Do your plans allow for enough food, drink, water, and other necessities? What about bathroom facilities? Is everyone comfortable with these options?
Even if you decide that you don’t want to do your entire ritual outside, you do have some other options.
A portion outside: One common option is to set up circle inside (and do the formal ritual bits or the ones that are sensitive to weather inside) but to have a portion of the ritual that takes place outside, such as a brief walking meditation, gathering of items for later in the ritual, etc.
Ritual inside, feast outside: This is perhaps the most common option: the formal ritual takes place inside, but if the weather’s at all reasonable, people have their post-ritual food and social time outside. This is a great way to experience the change in season and nature while not being at the mercy of the weather for your actual ritual plans.You can also include some seasonal activities (preparing a garden, a nature or herb walk, star-gazing, etc.) as part of the events.
Have a bad-weather plan: And of course, it’s possible to have an alternate plan for bad weather. For example, you may plan to do something outside, but have a fall-back if the weather looks bad. (This option works particularly well for times when you can usually expect good weather, but not always.)
There are some complications for this, especially for group work. To make it work, you need:
- A ritual plan that will work as well inside as outside (this depends a lot on what you intend to do.)
- A suitable indoor space. If you need to rent space, you’ll need to rent/pay for it whether you use it or not, which may make this less appealing as a choice than if you’d be using someone’s basement as a backup.
- A clear way to communicate changes to other people involved (remembering that they may be out doing other things before coming to ritual. In these days of cell phones, this is a bit easier than it used to be). If the two locations are in different places, and people need to coordinate rides/public transit, this can get especially complicated.
- If you’re using a space that’s not regularly used by the group as a backup, the people there need time and warning to get it ready for use (by tidying, cleaning, etc.) This means that a last-minute change of location is not a great idea.
What I do:
My basic principle is that I think it’s more important to do ritual than it is to be outside. I do most of my ritual work inside, due to a combination of weather and health concerns, and privacy considerations (I live in the middle of a city.)
I do include outdoor time in my religious and spiritual practice, but I do it mostly outside of structured ritual, so I can be more flexible and adaptable to my own needs and the current weather. (If the weather’s lousy, it’s easier to find a few minutes for a quick walk and bundle up than it is to do a whole ritual, too!)
However, some of my decisions are based on the fact that it can get lethally cold in Minnesota in the winter (and the bugs and heat in the middle of summer are not always the most fun ever, either.) If I lived in a different place, I might well make some different choices.
The somewhat flippant answer to this – while still very accurate – is that living rooms hold only so many people.
See, most Pagan groups – and especially most religious witchcraft groups – are intentionally fairly small, because much of the way they work works best with a small number of people who can build up trust and connection with each other.
(There are larger open ritual groups, but these are generally focused either on a pretty specific goal, with some filtering, or they’re open to anyone, but focused on general celebrations and community.)
But most religious witchcraft groups do run smaller for a variety of reasons:
1) Only so many people fit in the room.
I come back to this one first because really, it’s very practical. When a small group is meeting in personal space, you only get so far before it starts getting unwieldy. (And, of course, with a small group, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to either maintain a larger separate building, or sometimes even to rent one.)
For group work, the people hosting are going to want:
- Enough parking for people who drive without annoying the neighbors.
- Enough seating for everyone (chances are, most groups will have a couple of people who really need chairs, for various reasons, maybe a few people who prefer sitting on the floor, and some people who can do either.)
- Enough clear space for ritual – it’s a lot easier to clear a space the size of a smallish dining room than it is to clear a space that will hold 20 comfortably. Moving furniture back to the walls of the living room only gets you so far.
For all sorts of reasons, this means that 10-15 people is about the upward size limit for working in someone’s home.
2) The personal connections are important.
Religious witchcraft work, in particular, tends to rely heavily on personal connections between participants in a group.
You probably know that the traditional size for a coven is 13 – but it turns out there’s a good psychological reason for this: that’s about the upper limit of how many individual connections we can maintain in the same social context. More than that, and groups tend to start fragmenting into smaller subgroups.
3) A clear, focused, group mind is part of the point.
One of the things behind the theory of coven work is that a group of people with a shared intention and focus can be exponentially more effective than individuals working on their own. However, you’ve got keep people focused in the same direction – which has some size limits due to the practical and psychological factors noted above.
4) In a given group, some people will be a good fit right now, and others won’t.
It doesn’t mean that the people who aren’t aren’t good people – or competent witches, or whatever else you want to talk about. They’re just not a good fit for that particular group right now.
This is something we really should be used to. Good managers at jobs look to hire people who will make a well-rounded set of skills. Coaches of sports teams look for people who complement each other’s skills. Covens and small religious groups work the same way: you want people who have enough in common that working together makes sense, but who bring enough different things that there’s variety and flexibility and different options available.
5) Adding new people to a group is especially time-consuming.
First, you have to spend a fair bit of time getting to know each other, to even figure out if you’ve got a possible good fit. In my group, this takes 3-6 meetings, and usually about 15 hours of time (including the initial email stages) on both sides.
But after that, there’s still the time and energy to get someone up to speed in the group. Most religious witchcraft traditions cover a chunk of material to get someone to a point where they’re solid in the basics of their particular practice – usually something that takes 5-8 hours a month (at least) of dedicated teaching time in some form. Obviously, groups are sometimes going to be better able to do that at some points than at others.
6) Groups also go through internal cycles.
A given group might be up for taking in several prospective new members one year. The next year, they might hit their practical limit for numbers. Or maybe the people who normally teach have some health challenges, or some high demands at work, or something else that means they don’t have quite as much time or energy to spare to teach a new member of the group or see how they fit in. Since we’re talking small groups, lead by volunteers who host and teach because they think it’s important, these things can cause some significant pauses for good reason.
The good news is that often those things shift again in a year or two. More advanced students of the tradition may get to a point where they can form a new group. Health or job issues can shift back and allow more time for the group. They may figure out some way to spread out the workload that’s more sustainable.
What does it all mean?
Most simply, it means that lots of people – no matter how nice or great or wonderful they are – won’t be a great fit with every group. But it also means that the groups they might be a fit with might go through periods when, for whatever reason, they’re not taking in new students or new members.
If eventual group work is important to you, patience helps a lot, as well as finding ways to continue to learn and grow that make group work more accessible later.
[last updated October 28, 2011]
One question I’ve seen increasingly often recently from people who aren’t near a teacher (or a teacher of a particular tradition) has run “Why can’t the teacher move? Why do I have to be the one to travel and make sacrifices for this training?”
Now, one part of the answer to this is that while many Craft teachers are dedicated to teaching, they themselves have already sacrificed for their own training and learning. Asking them to sacrifice for *teaching* (something which they generally do without pay or other benefit than the joy of teaching something they love) seems a little much to ask.
But the other part is a bit more practical, and that’s what I want to explore here.
Why doesn’t the teacher move, or at least travel?
Because those teachers have lives, and families, and jobs, that they’re not just going to pick up and move away from.
Because those teachers already have students and initiates and group members to whom they have commitments and connections. Moving’s not impossible if the circumstances call for it, but it’s neither simple nor ideal.
Because moving – by yourself – and practicing trad is complicated and exhausting.
Because ‘more members’ is not the value that’s primary. Caring for existing connections, and for the well-being of the overall trad is often the first value.
And finally, because a lot of students say they’re interested, but for a wide variety of reasons, don’t continue past the first few meetings or first few months. (Which is a whole other essay.) A teacher making major life changes for any one given student is therefore not a stastically wise move.
Let’s look at an example:
This is one I’ve thought about a lot, because my life has recently involved a move 1500 miles across country, because, when it came down to it, taking a job in my field won out over staying in the place I’d been living and had lots of Pagan community ties. (The new job is awesome, and has a lot of other things going to it – I’m within driving distance of family and friends I’ve had to work hard to see for a decade.)
Now, I am a 3rd degree priestess in the tradition. I am fully able to move by myself, create a group around me, and find and train people. (Lots of people aren’t. I happened to be, and it’s partly because I consider my career to be part of my religious vocation that I was willing to do it.)
But I’m also not stupid. I’m fully aware of exactly how much work the process is going to take. And more than that, how much *time* it’s going to take, before I can have the kind of group experience I really really want to have again, and the kind of group experience that allows for full learning and understanding of the trad.
Let me lay that out, in practical terms:
I had potential students. When I decided to move, I have to let down two very lovely women who expressed interest in being my students in Minnesota. So it’s not “no students here, maybe students there.”
I need to get to know the new area on a mundane level, and also on a witchy level. Once I’ve sorted out “Where do I buy my groceries” and “Where’s the nearest decent supplier of herbs, or do I order online from the stores I know and love in Minnesota?”, I get to move onto “What’s the local Pagan community like?” and “What’s the land here like?” and “Where are the places of power and resonance in this landscape?” and “How do my assumptions about seasonal cycles fit into this geography?”
I expect all of that to take at least a year. Maybe more. (The good news is that by the time I’ve done all of that, I’ll be settled into the job, and have a bit more time and energy to throw at an active Craft life again.) And that’s with moving somewhere – Maine – that is in many ways (in terms of climate, seasonal patterns, flora and fauna) similar to Minnesota. If I’ve gotten the job I applied for in Tucson, it would have been a much larger adjustement.
Even though Minneapolis and where I am in Maine are at almost the same latitude, I’m still noticing lots of differences, though. And it’s also a shift to living somewhere rural, after living all my life somewhere urban or suburban.
Somewhere in there, I need to start establishing myself as person of potential cluefulness in the local community. That means going to more public rituals or other events than I might otherwise (In Minneapolis, I could easily give potential students other people in the community to ask about me. New place, I don’t have that yet.)
It means thinking of some things that a) I feel I can offer to the community b) fit with whatever the new job is (in terms of time/scheduling/how public the event is) and c) are not treading on the toes of people already offering stuff in the area. Both so I can get let people check me out – and so I can get to know them.
I may need to spend some time offering things that help give people the experience to decide if my tradition is a potential fit for them. Depending on what’s in the community, it may mean offering a bunch of intro-level options (if there’s nothing like that in the area). In Minneapolis, I didn’t have to do that: there are multiple sets of intro classes going most of the year, and a range of open ritual options.
In Maine, the distances involved mean that general public work is a little more complicated, and there’s a lot less of the short-class-series going on. (Though there are public or general invite rituals at various places around the state on a regular basis.)
Given that, I do feel an obligation to consider offering more public stuff than I’d otherwise choose to do, even of the “Here’s how to develop your personal practice, and understand what you’re doing better” variety.
There’s also some practical issues: I rented my current apartment sight-unseen, and it has a clause about guests. (I can only have 2 at a time: this is a college town, so I was not hugely surprised by that. It’s great in that there aren’t loud parties when I’m trying to sleep, but not so good for even small group noise-considerate work.) Plus, I need to buy more actual furniture still.
So before I can do much in the way of teaching, I need to move to a better space for it, or find a suitable space to rent.
Figure we’re at 18 months or 2 years post-move here.
And then we get to start the whole personal process.
Once I’ve gotten to the point I can consider students for a small group, I’ve still got the whole “Are we a good fit for each other” process (a couple of months), then their Dedicancy (a year or more, depending on when they approach me, because there are times of the year we don’t start that process.)
Because there’s only one of me, I can only take so many students at once.
If I am working in a professionally demanding job, and running even occasional public workshops, that’s one person a year, maybe two. (And that’s assuming my health stays okay, though I do know lots of ways to make pieces of this work fairly efficiently in terms of my time and effort.)
Dedicancy takes a year, so we’re now at 3-4 years post-move here.
And *then* we have the problem of initiation.
My trad still does cross-gender initiation (though it’s a topic we need to revisit.) That means that to do an initiation, I need to import a priest to help me, if the initiate is a woman. (And really, should anyway, because the thought of doing the full initiation ritual without any support for the first time makes me go “ergh” a whole lot. It’s a ritual with a lot of different things to keep track of.)
Now, the HP who trained me is potentially willing to do that – but he’s a busy guy, there are scheduling complications, I’d feel I needed to pay his way, and it means that my theoretical initiates would be walking into a complex and sensitive ritual with someone they don’t know. There are obviously ways that email and phone conversations can help, but that’s not a simple problem.
(My preference would be to invite my HP and his husband out for a lovely weekend at the height of a pleasant travel season to get to know the current students, but that would mean making sure I had a guest room, etc.)
And then, to build a group
We’ve got to repeat the student part another year or two or three, even to end up with a small group. Because some of them will move, and some of them will have stuff happen.
But if I’m really on the ball magically, and also a bit lucky, I might be able to gather the four roles needed to do our actual trad work in… oh, another 1-2 years, and in another year or two have a lovely small group that complements each other and has synergy, and all those other great things. Because there are things about the trad you can’t learn until there’s enough people for the roles.
At which point, we can finally – 4-6 years post move – get back to the actual work I *wanted* to do when I first hived.
In other words:
The whole thing is a whole lot more complicated than “Sure, let me move and start doing what I’m doing here without missing a beat.” Just writing the thing out is pretty exhausting and overwhelming. (The fact I can is that I’ve been thinking about this particular issue for about 3 years now, because I knew I was in a profession where moving to find a professional job in my field might well come up.)
And there’s also the part where I’d be separated from the care and support of my tradmates. Where I’d have to figure out a way to do useful conversations about stuff that comes up as it does. (The HP who trained me is much better about email conversations than my HPS. I love – and respect, and honor them – both, but one of those is a lot more annoying long-distance than the other.) And it means that I – as the other 3rd degree in the trad – would not be handy to help out if *they* needed me. Which we’d all cope with if we had to, but is not ideal.
(I can obviously come visit, but that also takes a whole bunch of coordination and planning. And not a little cash.)
Was the move worth doing? Absolutely. My life took me away from trad-mates and friends, but I have an awesome job, I love where I’m living, and there are a lot of good things in Maine, too. But would I volunteer to do it just for the potential benefit of *potential* students? Really probably not.
But there’s also the part about ego. I adore my tradition. I think it has many wonderful things. But I *don’t* think it’s the right thing for everyone, and I don’t think that it’s the only possible road to self-transformation, or to the Gods, or to any other goal anyone might care to name.
Now, can I teach stuff other than my trad? Yep – and as you see above, I expect to do that, at least as part of what I was doing, for a year or two. I’m reasonably good at it, I enjoy it, and I’ve got a bunch of useful ideas wandering around my brain. But it doesn’t teach people the trad, and it doesn’t maintain *my* commitments to my trad, so it’s not a long-term sustainable stopping place, either.
So, what are the options?
A person, these days, really can develop a wonderful personal practice, deep connections to the Gods, a working practice of magic and correspondences, and a whole lot more with the published material, online resources, and some conversations online or in person to help over humps or smooth out rough edges. I’ve met some lovely people like that (including, actually, both my prospective students in Minnesota.) It takes work, sure, but there’s a lot out there to help these days.
(I have lots of suggestions here.)
What someone *can’t* learn from that is all the stuff that’s about a specific trad, and all the stuff that’s about leading a group.
The first, because you can’t connect yourself to the energies and practices of an existing community without experience in the existing community (and initiation, for those trads where that’s the key to the energetic linkages.) But in my eyes, someone is not ‘lesser’ because they don’t have that. Just on a different path, with a different set of commitments. They may be *more* able to do some very wonderful things in the world as a result.
If someone feels deeply called to a particular trad, they can figure out ways to explore that (or not, as they choose), but it doesn’t make them a better witch or priestess, or anything else whether they do or not. It matters to me a lot more what they do with what they *do* have.
The latter – well, you can’t learn to sing in harmony in a choir without a choir to sing with. And it takes practice with the choir, not just dreaming about the ideal of the choir. I do think that someone, going very carefully, and listening hard to advice, and maybe figuring out a way to find a mentoring connection in group leadership skills (on both practical and magical levels) could learn this without previous group experience fast enough to not get a group in trouble.
But it’s the place I’m most cautious about – other than a very few specific practices, like possessory work – because if someone gets it wrong, there are serious risks to them and to the people they’re working with.
And so, I really do encourage people looking at this one to find *some* way to at least get some experience, and to get some serious ongoing conversation going with people with a lot more. That might mean going to festivals or conventions occasionally. It might mean travelling for training for a period of time, being clear with everyone that you’d go back to your community when you were done. It might mean finding someone who’s able to drive, but who’s more flexible than a whole group, who could mentor you. There are options there that might be more accessible to a given person than full-blown training with a trad leading to initiation.
(Would I be willing to mentor on this for someone outside my trad? Yes, assuming that the person and I had mutually compatible discussion styles, and I had enough time and energies outside my own commitments – because I do think it’s important to have people do it well if they’re going to do it.)
But again, it’s not the ideal. And because part of what makes a trad – passing stuff along to another generation of practitioners – is so tied up in doing that group leadership stuff, that in-the-circle management stuff well, so that people can understand it and continue it, I really think it’s a second or third choice to working with a group for a substantial period.
Yeah, that leaves people out. Professional music leaves me out, too, because I don’t have the time or energy to put that much practice time in. We all have to make choices, and recognise what those choices lead us away from: staying in a particular location limits us to the choices in that place. Travelling limits our choices for deeper connections in the place we were. One isn’t automatically better than the other – but they’re both limits.
[last updated October 28, 2011]
One question I’ve seen come up a lot goes something like this: “I see people talking about degrees all the time. Do they mean a college degree? What kind?”
Actually, we’re talking about something different – though like educational degrees, designed as a way to structure some kinds of learning, understanding, and internal development.
(In terms of traditional educational degrees, while I know a bunch of witches and Pagans with undergraduate and graduate degrees who make use of what they learned to improve their religious and spiritual lives and practices, I also know some great teachers, witches, and group leaders who never went to college. It’s about what you do with what you know, not the piece of paper.)
Who uses them?
First, not every path uses them. Degrees are also something that only applies to group work, so someone who is only a solitary practitioner will find them largely irrelevant. And while many paths do use them in some sense, many don’t. You’ll see them most commonly in Wiccan groups and Wiccan-based groups, and some ceremonial magic groups use something similar (though usually with more steps.)
What’s the point of using them?
In groups that use them, degrees are generally used for multiple things at the same time. (And different groups will focus on some of these more than others).
- A way to help mark an individual’s learning, progress, and knowledge in a particular practice or tradition.
- A way to mark how much responsibility, commitment, etc. someone has taken on for the long-term good of the group, tradition, or path.
- A marker of specific shared experiences (normally initiatory ritual experiences, but sometimes other things).
- Some practical things – for example, in my tradition, degrees make a handy way to mark who a guest should ask for help with different kinds of questions. A student can point out the bathroom, but it’s probably better for an initiate to answer questions about the group’s practice.
One of the things I talk about when I talk about this with prospective students is that it’s also about what is expected of them: they are not expected to worry about 3rd degree stuff when they’re 1st degrees, for example. (They’ve often found this fairly reassuring.)
As I’ll talk about below, a healthy degree system is usually about helping people understand different responsibilities, connections, and commitments within a group. It should be about what people are committed to and responsible for, not about who’s the ‘best witch’ or ‘most powerful priest’.
Do they apply across different groups?
Nope. They’re not standardised. What one group means by a first degree might be very different than what another group means. Mostly, they’re relevant to people within the same path, practice, or group, or to people who know a fair bit about that group. (Also, while 3 degrees is the most common, there are lots of other options out there.)
However, people who interact with people in a particular tradition or group over time will obviously also get some sense of what that group means by a given degree. They may not know the details, but they can calibrate them a bit against their other experiences.
Generally, someone who is a given degree in a particular tradition can transfer that to another group in the same tradition (with some time to get used to how the new group does things, since there are variations between groups on all sorts of practical details.) Of course, someone with extensive previous experience wouldn’t need to take as much time covering shared basics or skills, so they might learn or practice different things than someone who was brand new to Paganism.
However, degrees do not generally transfer between traditions: I am a third degree in my tradition, but if I wanted to study and practice a different tradition, I’d expect to start out at the beginning of their process again. That’s because each tradition has its own way of looking at (and interacting with) the world, the Gods, each other, and their ritual and magical practices, and it’s really hard to separate those things from more general material.
So, where do they come from?
The idea of a degree system has been around for a very long time: many people consider the basic model to be the apprentice, journeyman, and master framework that was widely used beginning in the Middle Ages in Europe (and similar models show up a lot of other places.) Basically, it’s a way of framing what you do and the context you do it in into a structure that helps you fit with other people doing similar things.
An apprentice is learning a particular skill or set of skills. They know that they are interested in investing time and energy in that learning. However, they still need close supervision, guidance, and education to be able to improve their skills. Sometimes, this is about learning new information. But often, it’s also about having someone around who has more experience in that skill, who can be a resource and guide, or who can make sure things are being done in a safer and more sustainable way.
Think of someone learning how to make pottery: they’ll have a better time learning how to shape clay if they learn from someone, but they also need to learn things like how to set up a kiln safely, or which glazes can be used on food dishes.
A journeyman (or journeywoman!) is someone who has a good solid foundation in the skill, and who can be trusted to work more independently. They often begin teaching apprentices some of what they know, but they’re generally working for someone who is a master of the material. It’s a time for them to explore how to make the skill more their own, give it their own flair and style, but without having to deal with some of the organizational details of running every detail of a larger community (as a master’s shop would be.)
If we look at our potter again, they’d be learning how to make things in their own style, and experimenting, but also learning about running a larger part of the business and training.
Someone who is a master of a skill or topic has a deep and broad knowledge of what they’re doing, and generally has a good track record of guiding other people to learn more of that skill or understanding. They’ve generally done something that adds a new approach, art, or skill to the larger topic, and they’re also often overseeing other people who are still learning about it. There’s a lot more administration, often, with masters of a skill, and other things they have to think about besides just the skill.
So how does this work with Pagans?
Obviously, there are lots of ways to put this in a Pagan context. The most common goes something like this, first degree is about you learning to do for yourself, second degree is about taking responsibility in a group context, and third degree is about taking responsibility for things on a larger level: the tradition as a whole, community projects, etc. How does this actually work?
First degree (the equivalent of being an apprentice) is generally about learning the core of a particular path or tradition, including all the skills and information needed to function as a participant in that tradition. In my tradition, that means learning how to stand on your own two feet before the Gods, how to handle most of your own personal ritual needs (being able to cast a circle, know why you’re doing it that way, create and adapt rituals for personal use for a specific need, that kind of thing.) There’s a whole lot that goes into that, but it’s intended to be a broad base.
Second degree can do a whole variety of things. At this stage, people often begin to develop a speciality (or more than one): things they’re particularly interested in doing. Often, they begin to take on more complex roles in group ritual, teaching students, helping in a variety of other ways. They can also reduce the burden on third degrees, by taking over some responsibilities (setting up the physical space before ritual so that someone leading the ritual can focus on the energetic and magical space, for example.)
However, it’s also a time to figure out what they want to commit to – do they want the greater responsibility of a third degree, being a priest or priestess with a larger commitment to the community, group, or a particular other obligation? What needs to change in their life to make that possible? For a lot of people, the second degree in particular can shake things loose in their life that aren’t working for them: relationships, job choices, housing situations, and much more.
Third degrees are generally people who want to take on the larger responsibility – running a group rather than helping with it. Adding new things to the understanding of a tradition or the way it’s practiced. Creating things that benefit a larger community (the tradition, an area Pagan community, writing, teaching, etc.)
A big challenge here is for the third degree to balance the needed administrative and teaching and organizational work (that someone has to do!) while continuing to have meaningful spiritual experiences themselves. This is not the easiest balance. It’s very easy for people to get burned out, to lose track of their own goals and needs, or get sidetracked by group or student expectations. But for a lot of paths, a commitment for the third degree is to put the good of the tradition as a high priority, rather than just picking what works for them individually.
How do people decide when someone’s ready for the next degree?
There’s huge variation in this between different groups, but generally there’s some measurable pieces, and some pieces that are dependent on the feeling of the people doing the initiation to the next degree.
Measurable pieces might include attending classes and completing assignments, working on specific projects, doing some kind of service project in the larger community, taking on specific roles in ritual or other group activities, or demonstrating their skills. Usually, there’s some flexibility about how these things work, to accommodate people’s different interests, strengths, and weaknesses.
The feeling part is partly about whether a candidate seems emotionally ready for the commitments and actions of the next step, but it’s also about whether the initiators are comfortable being energetically connected to the candidate in that way. (In practice, concerns about this are usually worked out before anyone’s seriously considering a next initiation, but sometimes people have a sudden personality change.)
What happens in the ritual?
Depends on the tradition. A few traditions talk about their rituals publicly, but it’s much more common for the details to be private to the tradition for a variety of reasons. (Partly because it adds to the suspense of the moment and some other specific ritual tools.) Some traditions make the initiation rituals individual for each candidate, but it’s more common for there to be a specific ritual for each degree, done in the same way for each person. This gives a shared experience to everyone in the tradition who’s reached that degree that can be quite powerful and resonant.
As you can see from this, it’s not that the third degree is a better person, or a more powerful witch, or anything like that. Instead, it should be about what tasks and commitments they take on. Some people want to stay at the first degree point (participating in group work, volunteering to help sometimes, but being able to take a break at other times). Some people thrive as third degrees. (Stopping at second degree can be a little less stable, but some people do that too.)
Just because someone’s a third degree also doesn’t mean they know everything, or that they’re always right. It just means they’ve completed a particular line of learning and exploration in a particular path, and been recognised for it.
[last updated October 28, 2011]
I’ve written a lot about things to consider when looking at a group in the CARE pages (Conscious Awareness of Religious Environments), but I want to highlight a few particular issues when you’re first meeting a prospective group or teacher here.
- Meet in public the first time.
- Be thoughtful about the information you share (and why)
- Be able to leave easily if you feel uncomfortable.
- Be aware of warning signs and safety concerns.
- Trust your intuition.
Meet in public the first time.
There are lots of good choices for a first meeting. Sometimes this might be a coffee house. Sometimes it might be a food court at a mall, or a public restaurant.
Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be at your home, and it shouldn’t be at their home. You don’t know each other yet. I usually pick a coffee shop in my neighborhood – this means that people will have a general idea how long it will take to get later discussions/rituals they might be invited to, if things go well.
Meeting somewhere public acknowledges that you’re both getting to know each other. You’re not going to a stranger’s home (where it might be uncomfortable to leave if you don’t feel right about the conversation.) They’re showing some good sense by not revealing where they live to a random stranger.
(Most folks in the Pagan community are good people, but like all communities we have some people who get strange obsessions into their head. Sensible group leaders don’t want the occasional person like this to show up on their doorstep in the middle of the night.)
If a group leader won’t meet you in public (without a good reason – mobility issues are a good reason, but “I’d just rather not” isn’t), ask if you can bring a friend to your initial meeting, or if you can meet somewhere they can get to easily.
On sharing identifying information:
This is a personal choice. Often, groups will ask for some kind of initial information from you. Sometimes that’s a full name and contact info (email, phone, etc.) Sometimes it’s astrological information. (Many groups – including mine – use it to look at some general potential patterns, and see if there are any things we might want to explore in more depth when we talk.)
Don’t give information you don’t feel comfortable sharing. Healthy groups should be fine with you asking why they need that information (and why they ask for it at a particular stage in the process), or be fine with you giving only the information you’re comfortable with initially.
Have a way to leave easily if you need:
This goes both for an initial meeting, and for your first visit or two to the group itself. Having your own car makes this easy. If you normally take the bus, you should have a good idea of the bus schedule. It can also be a good idea to have cab fare handy (and know the easiest place to get picked up.)
If you’re really uncertain, ask the group if they’re doing a more public event any time soon, where you could bring a friend/spouse/whatever as a guest to see what you’re checking out.
Be aware of warning signs.
This goes both for signs of a disorganized and chaotic group, and for signs of a manipulative or abusive group. The CARE deeper question pages go into this in much more detail.
Be aware of other safety concerns.
As you get to know the group and group members, pay attention to what kinds of regular safety precautions they take. Ritual work – as I talk about elsewhere on this site – can have some risks and dangers, both in very practical ways (candles involve fire) and in psychological ways. You want to work with people who think about both parts of that. The Safety Tips and Notes essay has more things to think about.
Use common sense.
As I talk about elsewhere (on the Feeling Silly? essay), new things often feel strange or funny to us. However, most of us can tell the difference between something that’s new and different (and a bit weird to us), and something that’s scary. Trust those instincts. If something feels really off to you, trust your instinct to leave. Consider going to a public place instead of straight home (where you might jump at little sounds.)
[last edited January 14, 2011]
As you read and learn more, you’ll probably come across the mention of oathbound material. In short, this is material that people in a particular path, tradition, or group have agreed not to share outside that community. (And as you can guess from the name, that commitment is a very serious one, taken as a religious oath – often as part of initiation or dedication rituals and made before the Gods.)
Some people feel that this is unfair (that all information ought to be available to anyone who asks.) Others think that all the private material’s already been shared anyway. Other people have other disagreements, or frustrations with the idea. This page is me talking about what it means for me, working in an oathbound tradition, and some of the ways I talk about that with students and with others who are curious.
Continue reading What’s this about oathbound material?
One question that people often have is about the role of initiation in initiatory traditions.
Basically, in order to join an initiatory tradition, you need to go through specific experiences that help you join with and work with others in that tradition. The experiences themselves can (and should, in this case) change you. But the preparation changes you, and the choice to become part of that larger community also changes you. In other words, while the actual initiation ritual is often a very meaningful time for people, it’s what happens before that, and especially what you do with it afterwards that count even more.
Continue reading What is initiation?
This essay focuses in more depth on some deeper issues around online teaching and learning. It’s not meant to say “Yes” or “No” – but rather to be realistic about what you might and might not be able to learn.
(Much of this essay is based on an article I did for the Ecauldron.com newsletter in 2005, though I’ve added some further notes and ideas.)
Continue reading Online training – more to think about
Sometimes, Pagan religions – and especially religious witchcraft ones – are very confusing to people coming from other religions, especially Christianity. Many of the priorities and assumptions seem very different.
There’s a good reasons for that: often they are! Here are a few things you might want to notice as you start looking at various Pagan paths.
Continue reading Setting aside assumptions from other religions