background – religious witchcraft approaches

Note: These posts were written in the summer of 2009 as an introduction to what my religion’s all about when I moved my personal blogging over to Dreamwidth. There are places where the comments are therefore a little dated, and I have plans to eventually redo these essays to be a little more timeless. Until then, just keep the timing in mind.

Welcome to part 2 of my “So, talk to me about your religion” posts. This one deals with religious witchcraft, and more specifically (after an introduction) to Wicca and its various offshoots. Before we get started, people unfamiliar with this should know that what ‘Wicca’ has started having a tremendous number of variant uses. I’ll be talking about the spectrum they cross, and then about where I and my practice fall in it.

My assumptions about people reading this part

– You’ve got a nodding acquaintance with modern Paganism. If you don’t, go read part 1.
– You’re willing to work with my ‘definitions of Wicca on a spectrum’ thing for the time being, even if you may disagree with me on where to draw the line. (Which is fine: I’ve got Opinions about this, but I’m good at mature disagreement about it.)

Religious witchcraft, in moderate depth

There are a whole bunch of different paths that get defined as religious witchcraft. They generally involve the following:

– use of folk magic (witchcraft) usually with a European starting point or foundation. (There are a number of paths that include non-European stuff, but mostly the ones that *started* somewhere else don’t identify as religious witchcraft but as something else, in part because what English translates as ‘witch’ in many of those cultures means very nasty stuff, not the helpful, healing centered stuff.)

– interaction with deities in some form. We’ll come back to this.

– generally some recognition of cycles (seasonal, self, etc.) that eventually build on each other.

– usually focus on shared practice (what people do together) rather than shared belief. This is actually true of most Pagan religions. (It may help to think of it a bit more like Judaism than like Christianity, in this sense: you’re a good Jew in Judaism because you do the stuff that Judaism says to do, rather than because you believe the right things.)

I’ll be talking more about what this actually looks like in practice in a bit, but there’s a certain amount of history we’ve got to get through in order for the spectrum thing to make sense.

There are a number of different evolutionary trees. The one we’ll be discussing in depth (Wicca), starts with its roots in British folk practice (with smidgens from all sorts of other places). There are Italian religious witchcraft practices (Strega), and there are traditions like Feri which have their roots in Appalachian and Hawaiian influence, plus some other stuff.

There’s also a significant set of offshoots influenced in various ways by the feminist spirituality movement. The two best known are Dianic witchcraft (sometimes also called Dianic Wicca, though this hits the definitional issues I’ll be talking about later this post). Most forms of this are either women-only or women-centered. The other well-known option is Reclaiming, which has some Feri roots, but has gone in a much more politically-aware and centered direction. Reclaiming groups work by some form of consensus, but welcome pretty much any gender identification out there.

Wicca is by far the best known for a bunch of reasons that I won’t go into here: suffice it to say that it’s what sells more books, shows up on more TV shows, and so on than the less well-known ones. Because of that, the term has a fair amount of pull. Some of that is simplicity. (I grant, “I’m Wiccan” is easier than “Well, sort of Wiccan, but …”) And some of it is a desire to belong to a broader group that overrules whether or not the term is actually the best fit.

Wicca

In the beginning – this is in the 1930s, this known beginning – a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner retired to the New Forest area of England after a long career in southeast Asia (mostly Malayasia).

During his retirement, he became involved with a Rosicrucian theatre group (a philosophical and esoteric order). According to his account, he was initiated by some of the members into a witchcraft religion which he then went on to describe as ‘being one of the Wica’.

This was an initiatory tradition in the same family as the Eleusinian Mysteries (you have a specific ritual experience that makes you a member) and worked with specific defined deities. Information about the group, practices, etc. was kept oathbound – in other words, initiates agreed to keep all information confidential, including the names or more than very vague specifics about the deities (usually referred to as the Lord and the Lady.)

According to him, the material he got from the group (many of whom were very elderly) was fragmentary: rather than complete rituals, there were bits and pieces. The bits and pieces worked, but needed connecting material to make them functional or attractive to new blood. He did keep some things in place: Wicca was designed to be a small, esoteric, tightly focused path, not necessarily something to appeal to (or fit into) everyone’s lives.

Various people argue with this: some claim he cobbled things together from other sources, some that he invented lots of it from whole cloth. Books talking about specifics are in the resources list. Me, personally, I’m inclined to believe the “Got fragmentary bits, added lots” version. However, the answer to this question doesn’t actually hugely matter to me (except in a geeky intellectual way) because for me, and for others, the material *works*

After the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, Gardner started publishing non-fiction books (though he talks more about general traditions rather than his exact practices), started getting newspaper coverage, and a lot more attention. He trained people, they formed groups, and somewhere in here two things happened. (We all notice the handwaving I’m doing so that this is 4 pages and not 40+, right?)

The first is that what Gardner was doing started getting called Gardnerian Wicca. And the second is that people started splitting off and doing other related things that were clearly related, but where the exact sources, specifics, and tracings are tricky to untangle because they involve oathbound material, individual group details and personal relationships (both good and feuding). The other major split that’s widely known is Alexandrian, but there are others you probably won’t run across often. If you think of it like the Protestant Reformation schisms in fast motion due to far better communication, publication, and other such things, you might get the idea.

Then, in the 60s, Wicca came to America. By the 70s, it had started regularly bumping into the feminist spirituality movement, and there were additional offshoots and growths and recombinations of things that started then (and continue to happen now, and I expect will continue to do so for a long time to come.) Basically, it’s what happens if you take a path intended for small groups of people with a high commitment level and formal structure, and mesh it with American ideals about free access, along with some of the feminist movement rhetoric around issues of power and control. Again with the handwaving over complexities, but you get the idea.

General practices

I really like the Wiccan Church of Canada’s outline of common practices – enough that I’d encourage you to go look at it rather than duplicate it right here. In brief, though, the core Wiccan practices that descend from the New Forest area include the following (among other things)

– Specific shared ritual experiences that are part of full participation in the tradition, as well as being designed to create or encourage specific changes in the individual.

Initiation is a tricky word, because it has multiple meanings. In traditions with a lineage, there is a group energy (often called an egregore) that is a core part of the tradition. Part of initiation is connecting in particular ways with that group energy. You might think of this like getting the keys to a shared family vacation home: it’s not *just* yours to do with as you like, but you have some access and connections that aren’t open to everyone.

In practices without a lineage, it often means something more like ‘a deeply meaningful personal experience with deity that creates or encourages certain changes’ but that isn’t connected to a persistent energy/line/practice in the same way. Yes, this gets confusing. Welcome to one of the ever-present conversations on many Pagan forums.

– Polytheistic, honoring multiple deities. (As you’ll see in part 3, it’s somewhat common for people to work with one set of deities in group work, and others on their own.)

– A focus on specific religious mysteries. Religious mysteries are things that you can understand, but not explain in words. Sex is a common example: you can read all the information about sex you want, but you won’t know how *you* respond until you do it yourself.

In Wicca, these include the cycle of birth, life, death, and birth again, various polarities (most referenced is male/female, but the four Platonic elements also play a part), the descent of the Goddess and the sacrifice of the God, and a number of others. One central ritual piece of Wiccan ritual, the Great Rite, is a direct exercise in polarity.

There are many many many religious mysteries, and no human is ever going to experience all of them. Think of it this way: there are mysteries about love and sex that depend on our orientation and preferences and what we do in relationships. There are mysteries about creative process that depend on our preferred artistic forms: some things are different for a writer than a musician than for a potter. Religion’s just the same way.

– Ritual is done in ritual space created for that ritual (rather than permanent temples that are always consecrated). Outdoors is often desireable when realistic, but indoors works too. “Casting a circle” is the common phrase for the process of creating the working temple/ritual space. Casting a circle is in itself an act of magic (by that ‘creating change in accordance with will’ definition I gave earlier), but other folk magic practice is common as part of ritual.

– Rituals celebrate multiple interlocking cycles primarily solar/agricultural and lunar (full and sometimes new moons) as well as personal life changes and other events.

– An ethical basis in self-responsibility and interconnection with the immanent and divine world, as suggested by various common texts (the Wiccan Rede, the Charge of the Goddess, and other common philosophies.)

– A priesthood tradition: there is no lay community, and each initiate (full member) is considered able to manage their own personal ritual and religious work most of the time. However, gathering together in small intimate groups (covens, usually under 10-1 3 people) allows for particular magical and ritual techniques that can be extremely meaningful or effective.

– Part of the ritual work involves being able to work with (and ideally sense) energy in ritual spaces. We can all do this (ever walked into a room just after two people finished arguing? You do it too), but part of ritual training is learning to do it more deliberately, and learning to help create energetic patterns that fit your desired goal. (Which all leads into magic, again.)

I’ll be talking in more detail about what one example of this looks like in part 3, and you might find that explanation more useful.

Points on the spectrum

We now get back to the spectrum. Before we talk about some different possible points, I want to point out that this discussion isn’t about ‘what is a valid religion’ – all of the definitional clusters below can be deeply meaningful and wonderful for people. Instead, it’s an attempt to outline how we talk about it, and what different people might mean by the same word (and why it can be confusing until you know more about how someone’s using the word ‘Wicca’).

It’s helpful to think of five points where definitions tend to cluster. There is some variation in how terms are used (see cluster 1 for an example) that’s regional/national, too – the ones I’m talking about here are US/Canada dominant ones because Wicca’s grown in the US in slightly different pathways. (Folks from other places may be slightly confused, but usually figure it out fairly quickly.)

Cluster 1:

Wicca is an initiatory oathbound mystery priesthood tradition which directly descends from the New Forest area through a line of direct initiatory lineage. (i.e. each initiation connects one to a direct chain that reaches back to Gardner or someone else in the New Forest coven.) Traditions based in other places (in England, in Europe) may be similar, but aren’t Wicca, and traditions which do not include the above core practices (in specific ways) along with direct lineage aren’t Wicca either, but another kind of religious witchcraft.

This cluster is often referred to as British Traditional Wicca to distinguish it from other clusters. (This usage is more common in the US than the UK, and UK folks are sometimes confused by it.)

Cluster 2:

Wicca is a religious witchcraft path which shares a majority of common traits including an initiatory practice into the group with specific standards and practices, but does not share a direct lineage of practice or energy to the New Forest area or the traditions which come from there. (In other words, cluster 1, but not tracing directly to the New Forest trads.)

Clusters 1 and 2 also often include some specific practices – the most notable is Drawing Down the Moon, a particular form of aspecting in which a Goddess speaks through the body of the priestess. (Other forms of aspecting can be done as well.)

This is, as you might imagine, a complex thing to balance and do in reasonable safety and sanity. It’s similar to the practices in Voudoun and Santeria, but the technology to get there is a bit different (different triggers/set-up) and the outcome usually a little different (in Wiccan-based use, it’s often a time when the deity speaks directly to people there, individually or generally, or provides advice or other information.)

Cluster 3:

Wicca is applied to religious witchcraft traditions which share a majority of common traits including with people drawing lines at slightly different places about what that means. However, it may not involve an initiatory practice, and people may work entirely solitary. This is the version the Wiccan Church of Canada uses, and it’s one that’s got a certain amount of traction.

The difficulties lie in where you draw the majority line, and which practices people think are core. (The question of ‘self-initiation’ is widespread in the community at large, but not something I’m going to get into in this essay, or we’ll be here for weeks.)

Cluster 4:

Wicca involves some really basic concepts from the above (the ritual cycles, doing ritual in a cast circle, honoring multiple deities) often leaves some other stuff out – most commonly, these are the male/female polarity (including the Great Rite), some of the mysteries (especially the more challenging parts like the Descent myth or the sacrifice of the God), and generally does not include an initiatory practice (or if it does, is doing so in the sense of ‘meaningful personal experience’, not ‘connecting individual to group energy’).

This is the version that a vast majority of generally accessible books about Wicca talk about.

Cluster 5:

“Wicca is anything I like”. Some people who’ve said this will say things like “Well, I’m Wiccan, but I don’t celebrate the Sabbats, and I never cast circle, and I don’t really believe in or interact with any deities, and I don’t even do magic, but I do like to meditate, and I like some of the symbols.” All those things might be fine – but it’s pretty clear that we’re now miles and miles away from what the practice of the folks in cluster 1 looks like – and using the same word for both is going to get confusing.

I personally use “Wicca” to describe clusters 1 and 2 and some of 3 when speaking generally (unless it’s already being used in the conversation or conversation space in a different way.) As I mentioned above, I don’t think what I do precisely fits this meaning, so I use religious witchcraft instead for my own practice.

A few final notes

There are a few final things I haven’t mentioned here, which might be helpful.

Degree systems

Traditional Wicca and a number of its offshoots have what is called a ‘degree’ system. People with higher degrees are shouldn’t be seen/treated as ‘better’– but they have taken on more responsibility to their group, community, and tradition. The model is often compared to the apprentice/journeyman/master model: many people stay at that first degree level (happy to work in someone else’s group, do their own work, but not take on a lot of extra responsibility) for their entire lives, and that’s just fine.

(The way I describe this in one of my internal coven documents is like this: “And, in degree-based witchcraft traditions, we give particular respect to those who hold a higher degree than we do, and to the High Priestess and High Priest of a group. This isn’t because they’re better people, or even better witches. Rather, it’s a sign of respect for the time and effort they’ve put into learning, supporting, and creating the community before we got there.”)

Depending on the tradition, you generally need to be either a 2nd or 3rd degree to lead your own group (and pass on the appropriate initiatory connections). It also comes with more direct responsibility, which I’ll talk more about in part 3. Specific degrees also may have a particular focus (for example, in a lot of traditions, 2nd degree particularly focuses on dealing with the shadow self .)

Life does not stop after 3rd degree: it just means you have all the tools of that particular tradition at your disposal (and a bunch of responsibilities) and then need to go figure out what you’re going to do with them.

Solitary vs. group

As you might have guessed from my commentary already, some people practice with groups, others by themselves. While traditional Wicca is learned in a coven setting (or at least from a teacher with occasional other contacts, because you can’t connect yourself to an egregore you don’t have access to…) many people using cluster definitions 3, 4, and 5 work solitary: they learn from various sources and combine it in a personal practice (them, or maybe them plus immediate family, like a spouse or children) without a formal group structure.

It’s worth noting that many coven members feel it’s necessary to have a strong personal practice as well as coven work. That’s definitely my feeling too. More on that in part 3.

There are also a number of groups that are designed to be Wiccan-based, but to create a lay community (people who want to attend Wiccan-based rituals using the mythology, ritual year cycle, etc.) but without making the commitment to the priesthood themselves. Because of the changes in structure and focus that need to happen to make this work (it’s a whole different barrel of ritual techniques, among other things), they’re this odd sort of middle ground. Many of them are fairly good at explaining what stuff they include, what stuff they don’t, and so on.

The questions of gender, orientation, and race

Traditional Wicca places a strong emphasis on the polarity between male and female, and a myth cycle that explicitly references male-female sexuality, pregnancy, and birth. These groups are generally lead by a High Priestess (who is the final decision maker) in cooperation with a High Priest. (In some trads, the ideal is for a coven to be equal numbers of men and women who are paired working partners. In reality, this is pretty rare.) There are certain rituals that cannot be done without people running the appropriate energy in these roles.

How gender and sexual identity fits into this one is complicated, but there are initiates in traditional groups who are male, female, transgender, other gender identified, and who are straight, gay, bi, and many other points on the spectrum. Generally, the basic issues are whether a specific person is a good fit for a particular small group, and whether they’re comfortable working in a religious tradition that places a strong emphasis on this particular polarity. (Note that in this case, the polarity is not ‘this is what all humans should do’, but ‘Our god and goddess are lovers in this particular configuration, and there’s only one set of physical gender combinations that can produce pregnancy, which is also part of the myth cycle.’)

Race is similar – because Wicca roots in western Europe, the vast majority of Wiccans tend to be white, but by no means all. Again, the principle question tends to be “Are you interested in working with these specific deities/myths/cycles/etc. with these people” (in the case of traditions and groups.) My covenmate (who is not white) and I have been having a lot of conversations around this in the last year, and while a lot of stuff is in ongoing discussion (in part because I have concerns about appropriation in a couple of specifics, or the appearance of same), I’m also very aware of the issues involved.

(I’ll note that it’s not like the Wiccan community is perfect on these things. Individual groups, due to autonomy, vary *hugely*, and some are a lot more aware of the possible diversity and range of possibilities than others. But people do think about it and talk about it, and make conscious choices about it.)

The fluffy issue

This is already a very long post, so I’m instead going to point you at the page on Wicca for the Rest of Us about it.

In essence, though, it isn’t about being new – it’s about a particular kind of deliberate ignorance or refusal to recognise that ‘I have the right to my own religious choices’ is not the same as ‘I get to call my religion Wicca, and have it be anything I want it to be.’ Often, people focus on a single book or author, and particularly on those that remove material they don’t want to face, deal with, or work with in Wicca.

Ok. We’ll now move onto part 3, what I actually do.

Resources

It’s relatively complicated to find resources talking about these definitional cluster issues: there are various attempts on online forums, but they’re often lengthy threads. I again recommend Wiccan Church of Canada FAQ as one of the clearest versions I’ve seen.

A website called Wicca for the Rest of Us also does a good job at a bunch of these issues, particularly the 101 FAQ (There are specific things in there I have different opinions on, as you might guess, but in general, it’s a great starting place and their structure makes it fairly simple to find info on common questions.)

For a book dealing with the difference between mystery and non-mystery focus religions, one of the most recommend books from a Wiccan POV is _The Heart of Wicca_ by Ellen Cannon Reed.

***
Introduction

Part one: An overview of modern Paganism
Part two: Religious witchcraft and its various definitional issues
Part three: Personal practice

  • Wolcen

    Jennett, Thank you so much for the kind invitation to view your web pages. I find that what I have read so far is an exceptional overview of different aspects of, to use your phrase, religious witchcraft. While having been initiated into a traditional coven I am by no means a ‘gospel’ Wiccan. I find your insights keen and hope we can correspond in the future.

    Iden Hill idenhi@gmail.com

  • Wolcen

    Jennett Thank you so much for the kind invitation to view your web pages. I find what I have read so far is an exceptional overview of different aspects of ,to use your phrase,religious witchcraft. While having been initiated into a traditional coven, I am by no means a ‘gospel’ Wiccan. I find your insights keen and hope we may correspond in the future.

  • Jenett

    Thanks for the comments! I tend to have more in common with BTW folks than many other strands of religious witchcraft (while recognising and respecting some of the nuanced differences, as well.)

    More chatting is quite welcome, though I admit I’m slower in responses right now than I’d normally like.