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 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]
People have gotten the idea that in order to be a witch (or a religious witch, or a Pagan, or whatever), you simply need to study for a year and a day. And that that time frame is really fixed – you can’t take longer.
The reality is a bit more complicated.
In fact, the year and a day comes from a common group practice of asking students to work with the group for a year and a day before they commit to the group, the tradition, and the Gods (via initiation). Lots of people decide (often for very good reasons) that one or more of those things isn’t for them, at least right now. It’s much better to figure that out before long-term oaths and commitments are made.
Continue reading Why a year and a day?
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?
I mentioned already that people use the term Wicca in a wide variety of ways. On one hand, it makes some things easier (you can share a general idea of the broad foundation of what you do fast.) On the other hand, it makes a lot of things much harder – because people use the term Wicca to cover everything from an initiatory priesthood tradition focusing on specific religious mysteries to “Well, I work only by myself, like celebrating Samhain and Beltane, but I don’t really believe in the Gods and I rarely do magic”.
It’s not that one of these is categorically better than the other – one may be great for a specific person. But rather, when we use the same word to refer to a wide range of things, it can get hard to figure out how to find people who share what we do – or who can help answer our specific questions.
Continue reading Different uses of the same word
Not sure which paths to start looking at first? Below are a variety of different (fairly general) paths, along with a list of qualities or interests. If several things in a list seem to fit you, it might be worth checking that path out in more detail.
Please note: these are very general, and some things may apply to you, while others won’t. Likewise, some things will apply to specific groups in a path, and some won’t. There will probably be additions as I think of them, but you’re welcome to contact me (link in the menu) and share some others if you like.
They’re ordered in the way that flowed best: placement in the list doesn’t depend on what I think about the path, or which ones are ‘better’. They all have their good points.
Continue reading Where to start
People sometimes find the origin of Wicca both fascinating and complicated. This page begins with some historical context, and then goes into looking at some common ideas and practices.
Continue reading An introduction to Wicca
Pagans are all sorts of people. The Pagans I know are librarians and engineers, counselors and researchers, tech geeks and artists, writers and teachers, staying at home with their kids or working in retail, working in state jobs and for large corporations, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. Like other religions, our ethics and personal commitments shape these choices – but people come to a wide range of answers that suit them. We also come in all shapes, colors, and genders.
You may not notice us: A lot of the Pagan community is hard to spot unless you’re looking for it – we don’t generally have churches you can drive by, or lots of big obvious public events. But we’re around – even in the Bible belt, even in rural communities and small towns, and across much of the world.
Paganism isn’t like what’s on TV. (or in Harry Potter, or in movies.) Those things may borrow some lore and ideas from Pagan practices – but they also need to tell a good story. Much of what we, as Pagans do, is a lot more matter of fact. We’re people who get up in the morning, who go to work, or take care of a home, or work on a passion or interest. We have families and friends and hobbies and other interests.
There are many different Pagan paths. Paganism is a broad term for a whole group of religions that don’t always have a whole lot in common with each other. (My “What is Paganism” essay goes into this in a lot more detail.) What we do have are some common interests and common approaches.
Many Pagans are glad to talk about what they do and believe – as long as people are thoughtful and respect the fact it’s a personal subject.
Many Pagans are very aware of other religions. In part, that’s because many of us were raised in other religious traditions. Some Pagan groups even require members to learn the basics of other religions to make sure that they wouldn’t rather be in one of those.
Magic doesn’t come with fireworks: As you’ll see in the further descriptions of these pages, a lot of what we call magic is actually a form of psychology and self-development. Even when it isn’t, it’s a lot more about changing our immediate environment than it is sending up fireworks or doing anything flashy.
Some Pagan paths are very structured. Others aren’t. Likewise, some paths have hundreds or thousands of members. Some may be limited to a single small group – or even an individual. The best way to know what an individual Pagan cares about or does is to ask that person.
Pagans are human: And like all humans, some of us have bad days. Some people will be great, amazing people who do wonderful things for the world around them. Some won’t. (And like all religions, we do have the occasional predator or abuser, and a share of people who claim skills and experience they don’t have.) In this site, you’ll find some ways to help you sort out whether someone knows what they’re talking about.
[last edited October 28, 2011]
One thing you’ll find as you learn more about Paganism is that there are many different views on the nature of deity. That’s true even for people working in the same group or path: two people standing beside each other in ritual might have quite different ideas! That’s in part because Pagan religions tend to form around shared practices (orthopraxy) rather than shared beliefs (orthodoxy). Obviously, every religion has a bit of both.
The most common approaches are:
- Monotheism is the belief or doctrine that there is only one god.
- Duotheistic practices come down to two deities (often male and female, but that’s not the only option.)
- Polytheism is the belief in or worship of many gods (or at least more than one god).
- Pantheism is the idea that deity is present (immanent) in all things.
- Henotheism is the belief in or worship of one god, without denying the existence of others.
- Atheism is either the belief that no gods exist, or denial that gods exist.
- Agnostic is the term for not being sure about the nature or existence of deity.
- Pantheon refers to families of deities (i.e. the Greek pantheon includes Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, etc.)
- Archetype is a term used to refer to a idealised individual that generally represents a category, for example Maiden, or Mother, or Crone or King or Warrior or Healer.
How do Pagans look at deity?
Many Pagan religions are either polytheistic or polytheistic in practice (i.e. they behave as if there are multiple distinct gods.)
However, you will also find Pagans who are henotheistic (they focus on one deity, while acknowledging the existence of others), and those who believe that all named deities are part of a single greater divine whole: who see a single face of a given deity, but it all connects in the middle (this is sometimes referred to as the ‘facet’ theory, or more irreverently as the ‘disco ball’ theory.)
There are also a number of people who enjoy Pagan community events, or who practice magic of various kinds who are atheists or agnostics: their practices do not rely on or involve deities.
Reconstructionist paths generally honor the pantheon of that culture (though they may particular attention to one or a few deities from that pantheon more than the entire pantheon). It’s also quite common for an individual to honor a particular deity in their own life, as well as others in group work or at specific festivals.
Religious witchcraft traditions tend to be polytheistic in practice. British Traditional Wicca traditions work with two very specific deities whose names are considered private (oathbound), but who are referred to as the Lord and Lady in public. Other religious witchcraft traditions may honor only a few specific deities, may work with a variety of deities, or some other combination. Many people in these two groups also develop relationships with a particular deity – a patron deity – they honor in their personal practice.
More eclectic paths may work solely or primarily with archetypes, rather than deities. Some paths trace their deity interactions from duotheism (for example, a God and Goddess: note that this leaves out deities who do not fit into a dualistic model of gender.) There are lots of variations.
My own practice is heavily polytheistic: I believe there are many deities out there, I interact with them as individuals beings (and get to know them as individuals), but I’ll also sometimes attend rituals that honor and work with deities that I don’t have a personal connection with. But mostly, I work with a small number of deities: deities I honor and work with personally, those the coven works with, and those the tradition works with.
(You’ll notice I say ‘honor and work with’ here. For many Pagans, ‘worship’ can be an imprecise term, or lead to assumptions that might not be accurate. Many Pagans look at their deities as those who are wiser, with vastly more experience, and who are due respect and honor. But they also recognise that those deities benefit from our attention and time and assistance. So, other terms – honor, work with, respect – are common, and ‘worship’ may be less frequently used, unless it’s truly a situation of worship (leaving specific offerings or prayers or other actions solely to honor and worship the deity.)
Other things out there:
Many Pagans also feel there are other beings out there who aren’t present on the physical plane, but who can (and do) interact with us. Some of these include:
- Ancestors (both by blood and family connection, but also by choosing a similar life path – for example, those who were witches, teachers, priest/esses in life.)
- Elemental powers (beings associated with a particular element that forms life: in Wiccan practice, these are air, fire, water, and earth.)
- Guardians of various kinds.
- Locus genii or spirits of place (common in a wide variety of folk traditions, these are spirits who are intimately connected with a particular physical connection.)
- Other beings – commonly the Fae, Good Folk, etc. by whatever name a culture uses, or other beings who are neither of this world nor deities.
Some paths and traditions are very specific about their interactions with some or all of these. Others aren’t.
[last edited October 28, 2011]
I’ve seen a lot of questions out there from people wanting to have a list of all the traditions out there, so they can choose one. This is not the most effective way to go about things, for a variety of reasons.
Continue reading The problem of choosing a tradition