This article will undoubtedly upset some people, but I felt that I needed to clearly state my opinions and insights on this topic so there is no confusion as to where I stand. While I am a member of a lineal tradition of British Traditional Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, I feel that there are definite pros and cons to engaging with this tradition. Perhaps what I have a problem with has more to do with how covens and groups are managed than with the actual lore that is practiced by them. My readers should be aware by now that even though I am a member of this tradition, I believe that it should be reformed, revised and constantly updated. My reasons for believing this is because Wicca is a very new religion and it has not yet achieved a level of development or depth required in order for it to take its place with the other world religions. I don’t see that as a bad thing, in fact I see it as an opportunity for the Witchcraft movement as a whole to continue its evolution and development. There is still so much more to know and experience in regards to defining witchcraft and linking what we do know about the past with the present.
First of all, I would like spend a few paragraphs detailing what I like about Wicca and why I think that it is worth reforming and evolving. I haven’t given up on this tradition, but I suspect that my ideas and insights are probably contrary to the way that it is practiced or adhered to in the present times. I don’t disparage my tradition and I don’t like other writers referring to it as the McDonald’s of Witchcraft, or “McWicca,” as some have decided to call it. There is more than enough that is good and useful in Wicca to build a greater foundation over time, but other practices and traditional lore deemed erroneous or irrelevant should be changed, modified or discarded to help further its evolution and deepening its religious significance. Instead of discarding the whole tradition as some in the Old Craft Tradition would have it, I believe that reform, revision and adding new lore would go a long way to making Wicca into a continuing, viable and cutting edge religious tradition.
Here are some of the points that I would like to make in defense of Wicca, showing that there are some things which are very useful and good to be found in that religious tradition. Let me list them here for your consideration.
1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Since the magnitude of books and materials that are available to the general public is quite massive, it would seem that anyone who wishes to engage with a nature-based spirituality as popularly defined in our culture would find themselves involved in Wicca. Many of the people now engaged in Wicca are either solitary practitioners or informally involved in a group. These groups and individuals represent the uninitiated or self-initiated masses who likely represent the larger proportion of the total adherents. Sometimes these individuals will form groups and declare themselves to be a coven, but whether or not they receive recognition from the formal groups and traditional lineages is another matter altogether.(More about this later.)
2. There is a certain consistency within the beliefs and practices that make up Wicca, whether in formal or informal groups. Since much of the general lore of the Book of Shadows (and other sources) is either published or available online, then if a group of practitioners desire to form a coven and practice as a group there is more than enough material to help them build a basic foundation. They might not have an initiatory pedigree to establish their legitimacy, but their overall practices are consistent with vetted individuals and groups within the legitimate coven-based traditions. What this means is that Wiccan training has a certain consistency and conformity whether or not individuals and groups are practicing within an initiatory lineage. The difference, in my opinion, is that those witches who are operating within an initiatory lineage will have a bit more depth, intensity and (hopefully) the advantage of experienced and mature teachers. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
I have found over the years that to discredit a practicing witch because he or she lacks a proper traditional initiation seems more like a terrible conceit and a means of discrimination than really evaluating what that person has actually accomplished. Instead of basing an evaluation of a practicing witch on talent and merit, they are judged by who initiated them and from what lineage, if any. I have met both competent and incompetent spiritual leaders (High Priestesses and High Priests) in my own and ancillary traditions, and I have met some truly gifted individuals who are wholly outside of the traditional initiatory lineage structure.
So, it would seem that having a good pedigree and an iron clad vouch doesn’t determine whether a witch is capable or competent. I sometimes think that pedigrees appear to be more of a status symbol or a place to harbor the markings of an elitist cadre within the larger group of adherents rather than an indication of any amount of actual superiority. Having access to great teachers and working within a coven of experienced and spiritually mature individuals would doubtlessly further any beginner’s spiritual growth. Yet there is no guarantee that any traditional coven operating within a verifiable lineage will be more capable of providing this kind of quality guidance than a group that is outside of any verifiable lineage. One the best covens that I have ever had the grace to work with consisted of individuals who were not part of any established lineage-based tradition whatsoever. They managed to make traditional lineage based witches and covens look poor by comparison.
3. Classical witchcraft establishes a good foundation for the acquiring and adopting of both high and low forms of magic. Even though some religionists within Wicca are seeking to erase magical practices from their liturgical work, witchcraft is fundamentally a system of working magic as well as a system of pagan nature worship. They seem to go hand to hand. I have found that witches make really good ritual magicians once they are able to make the transition from performing initiations, esbats and sabbat rites to experimenting with different kinds of energy based or spirit based ritual formulations.
4. Wicca is grounded in earth-based religious beliefs and practices. Witches learn to love and venerate nature, and they have an innate grounded-ness that is often missing from ceremonial magicians. Nature is also the source from which they acquire an understanding of the meaning of life and the mysteries of birth and death, whether in plants (and the seasons), animals or humans. The cycle of light and darkness represents the changing diurnal cycle of night and day, the lunar and the solar cycles, and the oceanic tides. These cycles represent the basic and most fundamental pattern that is used to establish an overall spiritual and magical discipline, and this pattern is likely the oldest known to humanity.
5. Feminine based spirituality has its natural roots in classical witchcraft, and a woman’s power to create human life is regarded as one of the greatest and miraculous occurrences in nature. Thus, women in witchcraft are given a special honor and veneration that is rarely found in other western religious organizations. There seems to be a natural connection between women, the earth, the cycles of the moon, tides and the seasons, and the magic of sustaining and maintaining all life where required. Life and death are seen as just parts of the greater cycle. The concepts of evil, sinfulness, or that nature is somehow bad or corrupted, causing the modern stigma of conscious duality are completely absent from this creed. There is no devil nor is there any hell. Worshipers are not held in ransom to otherworldly punishment, and that all of the positive elements of life are seen as the grace of the earth perfectly balanced and imbued with spirit.
6. Believe it or not, Wicca does offer an authentic portal into the earth-based mysteries of life and death, light and darkness, and the spiritual evolution of all living things. This earth-based spirituality defines life and the greater world as a living part of the manifestation of the Deities who are fully invested and integrated into the material world. Spirit and matter are joined together to formulate the powerful mysteries that operate in the earth. Sacred sexuality and sacral nudity are the required tokens for admittance into this domain. Darkness is the veiled shroud of the mysteries and the underworld, marked by the Stang, is the place where they are depicted in myth and ritual allegory. The key that opens the gateway of the mysteries is, of course, ecstasy, and there are an unlimited number of ways of achieving that sublime state (and all of them are holy). In that underworld are to be found all of the treasures of the earth, the potentials of individual and collective fate, the revered ancestors and their hidden teachings, and the source of all life, which is known as the well or grail-cauldron of our spiritual and material beings.
Now that I have covered all of the things that I consider to be important and authentic in Classical Wicca, let me now discuss those things that I consider to be either erroneous or counter productive. From the list of six things listed above you can see that there is a great deal which makes Wicca relevant, beautiful, inspiring, and also empowering. However, we have just started our journey and there is so much more to this religious and magical tradition than what has been determined so far. Obviously (at least to me), we have many more discoveries and advancements to make before Wicca becomes a fully matured religion.
What I don’t like about Wicca:
1. Covens are usually organized into a hierarchical structure where one or more individuals rule (whether benignly or tyrannically) over the rest. In traditional lineage based covens, these positions would be held by a High Priestess and a High Priest. However, this traditional structure was put into question (in the late 1970's) by the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, and also by many individuals who are currently working through informal groups or as individuals. There is something to be said for an egalitarian approach to organizing a group, where consensus rather than rule by fiat is practiced. Since I have been really burned in the past by having to deal with either incompetent or power-crazy coven leaders, I have decided that the only group structure that I will tolerate is one that is based on consensus. I have defined how such a group would function, and I have given it a name - a Star Group. (You can find where I have previously defined this kind of group in one of my articles here.)
2. Classical Witchcraft, or BTW Witchcraft, tends to be conservative and inflexible in regards to managing and maintaining their lore. While it’s good and marginally useful to document one’s core tradition and distinguish it from additions and modifications, ultimately, this historical exercise fails to keep a rigid distinction between core based lore and innovations. Also, considering that the supposed “core” was someone’s innovation developed at some time in the recent past, religiously maintaining that core becomes an exercise wholly irrelevant and prone to errors. I know for a fact that many of the witches of late 60's and early 70's weren’t really very careful when it came to documenting their lore, especially the Alexandrians, so what is being conservatively maintained now was someone’s innovation just a mere 40 years ago or less.
However, what I think is really important is based on authenticity rather than legitimacy. Does the lore work and is it sensible? Can you explain it simply and easily to others. Does it require some convoluted narration or has to be bolstered by the excuse “we have always done things this way - it’s our tradition.” If the lore works, where it can be easily explained and there isn’t a better way of doing it, then it should remain as part of the core; but if it doesn’t work, then it should be replaced or discarded. You can keep an extensive record of everything that is kept or put aside if that is your desire, but what is practiced should be powerful, elegant, useful and relevant. In this guise, revisionism and reform are not only possible, they are most desirable.
3. High Priestesses and High Priests for life. In the BTW, when someone is elevated to the third degree and becomes an officiating priest or priestess, then it is expected that they hive off and form their own coven and group. Their elders have vested in them the privilege and the responsibility to be a spiritual leader over their own group. Now, whether those elders made this judgement based on a real insight into their students’ personalities, or ensured that they would behave appropriately through rigorous testing and training, or that the elevation was merely given due to excessive flattery, obsequiousness or forms of bribery would be completely unknown to those individuals who decided to be members of that coven. It’s often like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’ve got until you take a bite, and by then it’s too late to put it back. You either chew it up and swallow or spit it out.
According to the by-laws in Classical Wicca, coven members are supposed to vote with their feet if they find their coven leaders to be wanting. Yet no one seems to talk much about the pain that they have endured, the overall bad feelings they have towards the system, or even that they can get black-balled out of their tradition by vengeful and unscrupulous leaders. In my opinion, hierarchy should be abandoned in Wicca for consensus and the flexible role of facilitators acting for the group instead of authority figures. Mentors or teachers should be temporary arrangements, and every member of a group should be considered equal regardless of their achievements.
4. Part of the theology of Classical Wicca is dependent on a Goddess and a God, and this can be quite limiting. This is a religious formulation that has been called a Duo-theological system. Some have tried to argue that this deity pairing is quite ancient, but it is actually a very recent and modern rendition. Ancient pagans believed in many deities, both named and even unnamed. Their religious practices had three levels of activity that consisted of state sanctioned deities and rites associated with the city-state or mystery traditions, family deities, ancestors and spirits associated with the home and hearth, and personal deities associated with the individual. A pagan might be devoted to one specific deity (called henotheism), but seldom was he or she strictly devoted to two deities, or a male and female pair. Additionally, the triple goddess was never mother, maid and crone, and there is no ancient record of the oak king battling the holly king to mark seasonal transitions.
These are modern adaptations, and while they might serve a useful purpose, the more ancient and historically verifiable facts of western paganism are more compelling and likely more powerful. I have found the duo-theology of wicca to be a useful model for defining a kind of monism, which consists of the union of all being. This is because the Goddess and God are in perpetual sexual union and thereby through their ecstasy, they are perfectly emulating the One. However, the ancient pagan deities were typically omni-sexual, representing a richer and more complex model that more accurately emulates nature and human behavior. What modern witches need to do, in my opinion, is to incorporate more of the actual ancient practices into their modern core praxis.
5. When I started my religious career of becoming an initiated witch back in the 1970's, the historical gospel was that Witchcraft was the “Old Religion.” We believed that we were engaging in an ancient practice more venerable and legitimate than Christianity itself. We saw the burning times as the attempted unsuccessful conquest and persecution of pagan witchcraft, even though it was much more complex than that. Yet over the years, this belief in an ancient providence has been pretty much shown to be erroneous by historians, especially in regards to British Witchcraft. Ronald Hutton has shown in his book “Triumph of the Moon” that witchcraft in the U.K. is a recent creation, and that witchcraft as a religion didn’t exist in the previous ages. What did get transmitted down from antiquity to today are the artwork, folk traditions and the occult and magical practices, but even these have been modified and revised over the long centuries.
Wicca is a modern religion although it has pretensions of being based on antique pagan spirituality, but in some cases, actual antique lore is only now finding its way into the modern practices. What I would like to see is a lot more of this activity occurring, perhaps even rivaling what has been going in Heathenry for the last 20 years. Also, if Wicca is a modern religion, then witches acting as conservative religionists in these still formative times would seem to be highly misplaced and misdirected. In my opinion, our work has only just begun, and there is much that we can learn from studying and researching history as well as experimenting with new lore in a coven setting.
6. In the BTW, coven politics, self-glorification (Queening), and divisive inter-coven witch wars have marked the community pagan turf of a number of large cities. All of this can be shown to be rooted in the cult of personality that lies in the foundation of the hierarchical coven structure. When there is one or two absolute rulers in a group, then the members of that group jockey with each other for status and power. It seems like a common behavior amongst us hominids, and Classical Wicca tends to bring out the worst in some people. Over time, I found that I learned to hate the internal politics of such groups because it always got in the way of getting anything done. This was true even when I was supposed to be the High Priest, since like parenting, it required the consistent agreement between the two leaders in order for something to get done. Decisions from the defacto leader were usually ram-rodded into place regardless of the opinions or feelings of the members, which the leaders could ignore if they thought it prudent to do so. Believe it or not, ruling by consensus is actually so much easier because everyone is eagerly united in the work that must be done.
In some traditions of Wicca, it is proper for a High Priestess who has hived off at least one coven from her own to wear a garter with two buckles, representing her own coven and the one that hived off from her. Over time and with the accumulation of more buckles, a High Priestess could be elevated to a Witch Queen, and such an elevation included a kind of coronation, called a Queening. Of course, there is always a lot of politics involved in a coven hiving, such as strings attaching the new coven to the old coven hierarchy. In the domain of a chain of seeming ownership, no one is free except for the highest ranking Queen, and the individual initiates in any of these linear covens don’t even own their initiatory grades and spiritual progress.
The High Priestess has become a surrogate mother who coddles or punishes her brood as she sees fit. She has the habit of treating her initiates as children regardless of their previous knowledge or experience. Of course, what goes along with this overweening pride is a greater estimation of personal worth and authority. Ironically, when such egotistical individuals deal with each other in the greater community outside their organizations then the potential for conflict is greatly magnified, since each is striving to be a greater power and authority than the other. At some point something has to give, and the results are often an acrimonious exchange occurring over many months or even years. This conflict is called a “witch war” and it is often a sad and tragic event in the life of any community. Yet such conflicts occur only because of the oversized egos of the local coven leaders.
Some of the towns that I have previously lived in had a history in its pagan community of some witch war that had occurred between the leaders of different groups. What remained afterwards was a splintered and shattered community of opposing groups who would never have anything to do the other factions. Pagan community gatherings were segregated by faction, and each would spend a lot of time vilifying the other faction. It was all a terrible waste of time and effort, and instead of having a wonderful unified pagan community, that town had instead two or more bitterly opposed factions. Still, the source of the conflict was usually just a few individuals or less, and I believed at the time that if the rest of the community rejected them, then there wouldn’t be any conflict or factions. It was all based on self-glorification, which I think is inherent in hierarchical organizations that don’t have any kind of accountability to its members. If there was anything that I would change in BTW Wicca, it would be this fascination with hierarchy and self-glorification. In my eyes, all witches are equal, and all witches are just witches, nothing more.
Self-glorification can also create a barrier between a coven of initiates and a group of students who are studying and preparing to be initiates. I am referring to the so called inner and outer court structure, which seems to be a way of extending and glorifying the grade of initiate. Back in the 1970's there was no inner and outer court as far as I am aware. You were either initiated into a coven or you weren’t. Uninitiated members could be invited to attend sabbats and lore sanitized esbats; but usually a person was either elected to be a member or rejected within a lunar cycle. The first degree was a trial initiation, and if someone found that Wicca wasn’t their cup of tea, then they could leave with no harm being done.
From what I understand, an outer court is a holding area used for training dedicants and keeping an eye on them for a year and a day to make certain that they will turn out to be proper witches. Someone could spend a year and a day preparing themselves and then get deferred or rejected when it came time to be initiated into the coven, perhaps just because of politics or someone’s ill will. I have heard arguments from some High Priestesses that the outer court is necessary to ensure that an initiate doesn’t embarrass or shame the coven leadership with bad judgment or outrageous behavior. Of course that assumes that the reputation of the coven leadership was a sacred commodity to be maintained at all costs, and that the initiate wasn’t capable of being responsible for themselves.
What it really says is that the initiate doesn’t even possess his or her own initiatory process. They are treated as children, and in the case of an outer court, there is even a kindergarten or pre-school level to undergo. Needless to say, if I were starting all over and was presented with an outer court requirement in order to join a coven, I would just tell them thanks but no thanks. If they didn’t think I was good enough to be an initiate, then I would find some group who would want me to be a member of their tradition. I could also remain solitary and not experience any huge loss or missed opportunity. Being solitary is far better than being in a bad coven, and trust me, I know this to be true. This might also explain why so many witches are solitary and self-initiated, since there is little to be gained by the possibility of being degraded and dis-empowered by some overly self-important coven leader.
Anyway, I have discussed in detail what I don’t like about Wicca, and I have balanced that assessment with those things that I do like. I still consider myself a Witch in the BTW arena, but I greatly doubt that I would ever be a member of a Classical Wiccan coven. I would be happy to help facilitate a Star Group anywhere and anytime, but not a hierarchical coven structure. I believe that human nature being what it is, there is just too much temptation to abuse the absolute authority inherent in the priest/ess role associated with Classical Wicca. These are, of course, my opinions, and you are free to agree or disagree with them. However, these opinions are based on many years of experience as well as experimenting with different kinds of group structures. Since I am at heart a revisionist, I have felt that experimenting with different group structures and dynamics was just as important as trying out new magical techniques. I believe that I have profited by these experiences, and I seek to share them with you so you might profit as well.