Saturday, September 29, 2012

Questions About the Future of Modern Witchcraft and Paganism

(Dance of the Dead - Modern Witchcraft and Paganism?)
One of the things that has most captured my imagination and inspiration is how both Gardner and Alex Sanders experimented and tinkered with their traditions, as if they were never really satisfied with what they had and were always on the lookout for new and interesting lore. Back in the 1960's, the practice of Witchcraft and Paganism was so new that the various leaders of these traditions engaged in a flurry of creative experimentation and investigation. Yet the focus was not so much on the religious liturgy, although that did play a part, but on the whole basis or foundation of a modern praxis of ritual magick. Lineages and initiatory affidavits were not very attractive to those “spiritual spelunkers,” but entering into the reality of Spirit and the domain of the mysteries was critically important. It was a time of discovery, experimentation and personal development. Arcane studies and antique knowledge were being rediscovered, as if they had been completely lost and not temporarily forgotten. It was a chaotic but very fruitful time for those various pagan and wiccan traditions who were the founders of the overall movement, but it promised so very much to even the most superficial faddist.

In a word, what was important to witches and pagans in the halcyon days of the 1960's was authenticity rather than legitimacy. Young people who followed their urges for this phenomenon wanted authentic experiences of what would be called natural religion and magick, and they were less interested in established organizations. These people didn’t flock to the Masons, the Theosophical Society, spiritualist churches, or other such organizations; instead they fashioned their own groups and organizations. This is also why eastern religions became so popular during that time because they offered their adherents authentic spiritual experiences in a startlingly different cultural context. To young people starved for actual experiences of the occult world and the supernatural, these new avenues represented what they called “the real deal.”

Contrast that time with today and we can see a very different world, and I would urgently state my opinion that it is an apparent time of diminishment and decline. It is also a time for a whole new focus and a division between two divergent groups. When witches or pagans of any tradition become more concerned about stridently preserving their tradition and establishing their lineage bonafides instead of continuing to experiment and develop their personal and traditional approach to pagan beliefs, ideals and occult practices, then I feel that a corner has been turned, and unfortunately, for the worse. Orthodoxy has the terrible effect of not only preserving a tradition but also making a permanent edifice out of it, where change is anathema and strict adherence is the only possible direction. While there might be a certain diversity even in established traditions, they are rigidly held as if they were unassailable holy writ. This sort of mindless dedication belies the fact that differences and variances in Pagan and Wiccan lineages were developed only a short time ago, and they emerged because someone was tinkering with the tradition that they had received.

Ossifying the founding traditions of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian craft, and their various offshoots, is a sure sign that they are in decline since no further development is either desired or even possible. The emphasis has changed from discovery to one of preserving protocols and purifying the sources of one’s liturgical praxis; in other words, focusing on legitimacy instead of authenticity. This process of sanitizing a tradition is actually quite deadly, in my opinion, since it eliminates the possibility of experiencing the mysteries of the natural world outside of the stated and sparse liturgical lore. It also cordons off these traditions in a manner so that they are immune from revision, experimentation, or even developing new lore. They focus on a kind of nebulous religious paganism instead of magical practices and its various associated lore. As the ranks of witches and pagans become ever more elderly and religiously conservative, the actual numbers of young and new adherents also diminishes as well as the vibrancy and relevancy of the tradition itself.

This is really a very sad event, considering how young the various traditions of witchcraft and paganism truly are. Sixty years is hardly enough time to formulate a comprehensive spiritual and magical tradition. It would seem to me that what is really needed is a lot more experimentation and a lot less emphasis on lineage and liturgy, since otherwise these traditions will become dormant before they can even mature. I wrote a past article on legitimacy vs. authenticity representing, as it does, the divide that faces modern paganism and witchcraft, and that the difference between the two is quite distinct. You can find that article here.

A crucial dividing point between the vibrancy of the 1960's and today is the monumental work of Ronald Hutton, entitled “Triumph of the Moon,” which changed the whole perspective of modern witchcraft and paganism. It quickly transitioned from being a form of intense social and religious rebellion allied with an antique heritage to one that is a wholly modern creation. What Hutton did was to set the historical record straight in regards to the actual history of witchcraft and paganism in Britain, but it also had the effect of turning these new creeds into a harmless and socially friendly religious sodality. So much effort has been put into reclaiming and mainstreaming the word “Witch” that it would seem much of the real power and fascination the word has in our culture, and the rather ambiguous connotations that it has in folklore, appear to be lost. I would caution that “defanging” Witchcraft and making it analogous to other mainstream faiths is certainly a way to drain it of it mystery, awe and imagination - the very things that drew me to it so many years ago.

(A similar event occurred to the Catholic church through the auspices of reform. Vatican II eliminated at a stroke the power and magic of the Catholic mass and the veneration and worship of the Saints, and so it robbed the church of everything that made it uniquely authentic. That form of antique religious magic passed on to the followers of the African and Hispanic diaspora, where the “true” magical church is still alive and thriving.)

So I have been brooding over these various opinions and issues that I have with modern witchcraft and how it is practiced today, and I have stated them in some of my previous articles for others to read and ponder as well. However, it seems that until recently, no one has really stated the obvious conclusion that all of these disturbing changes seem to imply. The really dreadful issue that everyone seems to be tip-toeing around is that modern witchcraft, in regards to established traditions, is more or less dead or dying. Perhaps the bravest writer out there who has eloquently and clearly stated this forbidden conclusion is an author named Peter Grey. He wrote an article on the Scarlet Imprint blog entitled “A Forking of Paths,” and you can find it here. Peter not only has affirmed my suspicions and opinions, but he has brought out in a very clear and unequivocal manner what I have been thinking for quite some time. He has stated that modern witchcraft has already passed a fork in the road between those who espouse a gentle and socially affable modern pagan religion with those who continue to seek authentic experiences in the domain of nature mysteries and witchcraft based magick. 

One of the most compelling things that Peter has said in his article, and that I have witnessed myself over the last couple of decades, is that “initiatory” witchcraft traditions seem to be populated with far more older established members than younger new members. I have not only seen this phenomenon in regards to covens, groups and organizations, but also at local social gatherings of various types. Our local COG organization consists of mostly middle aged adults with very few young people. There is a reason for this dearth of new and youthful members, particularly since the emphasis of these older traditions and groups is more on a stultifying legitimacy than authentic experiences. A single quote from Peter’s article more than makes the point that what we are seeing is a movement in decline as opposed to one that is growing and continuing to evolve.

Far from being healthy, the argument could be made that modern pagan witchcraft is already on the wane. The lack of fire is evident in the dearth of young people at this, and many other events. Modern pagan witchcraft seems irrelevant to the concerns of their lives, it is tangential to their struggles, which are about to become immeasurably harder.”

Another fascinating point that Peter has made is to compare the modern witchcraft traditions to another slowly disappearing esoteric tradition in American culture, the Masons. I found this statement to be quite profound and even a bit alarming.

Initiated Wicca will follow the same arc of decline that Masonry has.”

So if Peter is stating that traditional Witchcraft or Wicca is facing an immanent decline into obscurity and death, does that mean that the whole theme of earth-based spirituality, including the natural mysteries and earth-based magick, is in decline as well? I think that the answer to that question is to be found in wherever the energy and development is still occurring in the area of earth-based spirituality, and particularly, where the young people are still flocking to find authentic experiences. It is in the arena of what could be called the alternative traditional witchcraft, or those traditions that are completely outside of the Gardnerian model that became popular Wicca. These groups would include both European as well as Carribean and South American witchcraft traditions, which only recently have become accessible to outsiders.

In my own town, the cutting edge of witchcraft is to be found in the ongoing discussion meeting known as the “Old Craft Discussion Group,” or in certain experimental groups, or groups presenting a new cultural matrix altogether. What is exciting to these people is not the Gardnerian based traditions, but in forms of witchcraft that are to be found in Brazil and the Carribean, as well as in West Africa and other locations. It is in these places that witchcraft is still defined as a praxis of magic as opposed to a pagan religion, and where the term “Witchcraft” represents someone who has the power to kill as well as to cure. These groups are the ones that are being sought, and they represent the melding of the old world with the new to fashion a truly viable authentic tradition. 

The key to this revelation is that ecstasy, magic, foreboding darkness, mystery, and even a bit of awe and fear produce a more authentic experience of witchcraft than anything a traditional coven could produce today. Wherever a tradition has systematically eliminated its own magic, mysteries and the full immersion of its adherents into the numinous world of the Gods and the dead ancestors then that tradition has thoroughly and completely lost its way. This is my opinion and I am sure that some will hotly contest it; but I believe that magic and the mysteries, as well as ecstasy, are fundamentally important to a true practice of witchcraft. I make no apologies for stating this opinion.

Making an authentic experience of the mysterious and tenebrous domain of Spirit available to anyone who desires it (instead of catering to an elite or exclusive clique) will not only engage the young and the old, but will also continue the process of discovery and personal development that is so integral to a healthy religious and magical movement. While the staid traditions of Gardnerian Wicca will slowly die out and pass away into oblivion, the new impulses and cutting edge experiential practices will be taken up by others.

Certainly, as the post-industrial age becomes more apparent and starts to profoundly effect more of the population, a spiritual philosophy and magical technology based on earth centered spirituality will become much more attractive to the masses. Rigid orthodox religious practices will continue to lose popularity, and their membership will dwindle down to a fringe minority over the coming decades. Yet, the mysteries, with that hair-raising magic which so haunts us all, and the ecstatic forays into the domain of Spirit; these will remain the proclivity of a small group of people, all of whom are self-elected, self-directed and self-motivated. It is my opinion that these individuals are the true hidden children of the Goddess of Witchcraft, and the carriers of that tradition into the far future.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. I couldn't agree with this post more. Especially this bit: 'The key to this revelation is that ecstasy, magic, foreboding darkness, mystery, and even a bit of awe and fear produce a more authentic experience of witchcraft than anything a traditional coven could produce today. Wherever a tradition has systematically eliminated its own magic, mysteries and the full immersion of its adherents into the numinous world of the Gods and the dead ancestors then that tradition has thoroughly and completely lost its way.'
    And I can see the signs of the same things you are discussing here in Australia. The groups who are thriving are those who emphasis the ecstatic, spirit-flight dimension to witchcraft and are drawing on less sanitised source material.

  2. I agree -- an authentic experience of the Divine / the Unknown / the Mysteries is a powerful thing. As a witch (and a ritual junkie!) I'm always reaching for stronger connections. A deeper knowing.

    Perhaps I've just been lucky, but my experiences as a Gardnerian haven't led me to see the path as ossifying. Working in the praxis of that tradition gives me a useful pipeline to my gods and spirits, and allows for unlimited growth; both to me personally and to the tradition as a whole.

    Your post is an interesting look into the future of modern witchcraft and paganism. Whether I agree with you on all points or not, thanks for putting it out there!