There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not. Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.
I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides. Teaching is my day job. As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.
Knowledge is not enough
Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher. Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements. Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.
In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary. You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it. Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress. Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus. Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach. In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.
This is not about you
If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be. Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it. The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student. If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.
The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you. To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core. Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts. Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge. Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise. The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling. One is plenty; four is too much. I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Be very aware of your language. Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it. This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like. I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it. Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it. Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?” The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.
At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge. Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.
Don’t get bored
In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching: “Don’t let them bore you.”
There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun. But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels. If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing. If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft). If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else. Most of all, if you are bored you will be boring.
Different models of teaching and their uses
Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.
The classroom or workshop model
Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space. That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.
The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.
The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole. A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.
An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship. This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report. This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.
Teaching in covens
In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one. In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities. Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated. I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be. There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.
Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit. The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”
From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital. How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give? I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense. There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week. I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks. I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.
In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself. I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles. As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say. To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice. My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.
Since I caught its scent in 2000 and realised its current had been nudging on my awareness for ten years already, I’d done what I could to study, learn, connect with and generally be in the same vicinity as Feri tradition. During that time I’d strongly received the message, from Feri initiates, teachers, from dedicants of all sorts of other paths and religions, that daily spiritual practice is a Good Thing – that it is, in fact, essential. But it didn’t occur to me until half a decade ago that, as for Vizzini in The Princess Bride, that did not mean what I thought it meant.
One practice I’d been doing throughout my Feri/Faery training was making Kala, or, as the teacher who would finally initiate me names it, the Water Trick. I’d had four cups that I’d bought specifically for the purpose of making Kala. Every single one of them ended up cracked or broken, or developed a leak.
First of all there was the beautiful clay goblet with a powder blue glaze that I picked up in an Oxfam shop in Edinburgh: it fell off its shelf onto the floor and broke in two. Then there was the gorgeous, apple wood, hand-turned chalice which I’d bought in the mid-1990s in Bath: the centre fell out of the knot in its side making it no less beautiful, but utterly unusable; the cup I made myself at a pottery class and which, although properly fired and without visible cracks, holes or fissures, conspired to dribble its contents out of its base every time it was filled; and finally, the round-bellied, clay chalice with a glaze shifting from tan brown to mustard yellow, another charity shop purchase, which spontaneously developed a crack overnight, without ever moving from its spot on the altar.
As you might imagine, I became suspicious that Something Was Up. At the time of this final insult to my attempts to be a daily spiritual practitioner, I was about halfway through a two-and-a-half year training with T. Thorn Coyle. We did a lot of work with our tools, both physically and metaphysically, and the idea came up in discussion with my fellow students of the ‘cracked cup’ – the student on the spiritual path who cannot hold the benefits of their work, because they have an unhealed wound, or an unnoticed fissure somewhere in their body, physical or energetic.
This made a lot of sense to me, as I was at the time finally coming to grips with a lifetime’s untreated depression. It also made sense because I took my first steps into the occult through the Tarot. I did a lot of journeying into the cards in my teens, and returned frequently to the Ace of Cups. Again and again I experienced being the Cup, the vessel for the Holy Spirit and the water of Life to work through into the world.
From that point on, I didn’t acquire any more cups with the practice of making Kala in mind.
Over the next year daily practice became more and more difficult for me, to the point where I just about gave up, although it was always in my mind, especially once I asked my final Faery teacher to take me on as a student. After having some success with doing the exercises she suggested daily, I found myself thinking about them, but not doing them.
I said before that I didn’t acquire any more cups for making Kala: that’s true, but I did make one last attempt at having a ‘special’ vessel for the purpose – the very first piece of pottery I had ever thrown, fired and glazed, back when I was 18 and a year into my journey with the Tarot.
I had made it with the intention of pouring out libations to the elements; I had used four different glazes to represent the four elements, overlapping with each other to create eight colours. It was lumpy and uneven, some of the blended glazes had run where the chemicals in them had interacted to alter their properties under heat, and it was perfect. I had carried it with me and kept it safe for 22 years. This simple, sturdy, uneven cup I had made myself, this cup which had been with me for so long, which knew me so well, which I did not imagine for a minute could possibly succumb as the others had done – which, not long after, fell off a table and split in two.
Shortly after that, I received a waking vision:
It is sunny and there is a clear, wide, straight and even track stretching off into the distance, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at myself as I sit on the grass verge, dense woods behind me. I am unable to walk on along the path. This isn’t for lack of energy, through illness or injury, but through unwillingness. My will is not to walk the clear, wide, straight and even track in sunlight; my will is to walk into the wild woods, into the dark, the unknown, the trackless – into the arms of nature.
I had not connected the vision with the broken cup, but following conversations with my teacher and others, something shifted into place within me: all of those broken Kala cups were not because I am a ‘cracked vessel’, but because I simply do not fit within walls any longer, because my path was not one of form: I break containers.
Talking to my teacher and another initiate who is a close friend, I heard reflected back a confirmation of what I felt: that going into the wild, into the woods, into nature was what I needed; that, in my friend’s words, it was about time I stopped torturing myself trying to make myself do spiritual practice that way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, and did it my way.
Fetch-me was so mightily relieved. No more rules! No more instructions! No more boring straight path! Relaxation and fun and doing stuff that kept Fetch-me happy was the order of the day.
This included a lot of walking in the woods, sitting by the burn (a particularly Scottish kind of stream), falling asleep on stones, conversing with buzzards and swallows, cuddling dogs, making healthy food, listening to the wind, standing and singing barefoot under the full moon. After a while, it also began to include mantras to the sun, T’ai Chi for the moon, alignment, salt water baths and whatever out of my existing bag of tools and tricks took my fancy and felt right.
And it was happening every day, which made it daily practice, right?
Which points to the vitally important nugget at the heart of all this. With all of those ‘Kala cups’, with all of the following instructions, I was making the mistake of turning daily practice into something special, something cut out, something disconnected, and, as my teacher said to me, the whole point of all of this is connection.
The point of daily practice is that it is not special: it is beautiful and self-expanding and joyful and full of wonder and connecting, but it is not special.
It is understandable, in this age of super information coming at us from all sides and media, that we have different kinds of information and lore from many various traditions and cultures mixed up together. This has resulted in many styles of modern Paganism. Still, there is a certain bottom-line of cornerstones that connect all forms of Crafte.* Confusion about this occurs at times because people have either lost sight of what the cornerstones of the Crafte historically are, or because there has been a deliberate effort to destroy or twist these fundamentals into forms that serve no one.
Victor and Cora Anderson were called to the work of helping people through humanity’s entangled complexes and magical snares. Now more then ever, it becomes necessary to recall and reflect on these cornerstones of our Crafte and how they apply in any age.
I offer these to think upon for those who want to embark on the spiritual life of Feri/Faery Crafte:
To respect and know nature in all its forms, for this is what we are all a part of.
To strive to embrace life and humanity, and to value life’s lessons as well as its pleasures.
To live with joy and wonder, understanding the wisdom that lies between dignity and ecstasy.
To live honorably and in accordance with our oaths, so we have the strength of character, if need be, to shun that which has become broken or twisted in its nature or values.
To defend the tradition with love and the courage of true warriorship.
To know your life is of purpose, to be filled with education, creativity and spiritual truths.
To strive for rightful pride and rightful humbleness, becoming your true self and reaching for your human refinement.
To recognize, respect and celebrate one another’s gifts and talents.
To honor and respect our elders’ experience.
To offer help to those in need, especially our kin.
To Honor the Gods and spirits of all nations and places.
To live in balance in ourselves, our covens, and our communities in accordance with our oaths.
The paradox that brings wisdom is knowing that, although the journey from birth to death is in essence one we make alone, the journey is not possible or complete without each other. Be it from our smallest cell, to the great forces all around us, it is all part of us. This is but one of life’s deep mysteries, what drives us to contemplation, meditation, prayer, science and all spiritual arts.
To walk the path of Crafte, it becomes our duty to endeavor to practice self-honesty and humility, as well proper pride before each other and the Gods. We must know when and how to be silent, for the greater good and for the inspiration and wisdom it brings. Our code of honor contains both kindness and discernment, joyfulness and dignity, that which seeks to explore and stretch boundaries yet not overstep common sense. Our code asks of us that we not conduct ourselves in such a way that brings confusion or mistrust to our kin or neighbors. We model Devotion not as enslavement, but as a unity of love and trust.
We are wise ones, artists and healers of various skills and talents. We should be trained well in these skills and have faith in ourselves as well as in our partnership with the divine. We should have clear understanding of our oaths and live to uphold them and our tradition. If one does not understand this, then one is not seeking the paths of the wise, but is at best having a well-meaning or innocent dalliance with the mysterious, or at worst becoming some kind of con artist of varying malevolence and criminality. There are many bitter pills in life, but none so choking as spiritual debasement; so remember you are living and walking a path, not just wearing its apparel.
When Initiation is fully realized, the doors of imagination open the mind to Wisdom and Science, the heart to Magic and Art, the spirit to Love and Reason. Realize that all the talent and genius of anyone without Love and Self-discipline comes to naught, for these provide the backbone and heart of true warriorship. The path of Feri Crafte offers skills of mind, body and spirit to strengthen and protect the seeker and Initiate. We learn to refine our nature as well as help uplift human kind. Only those who truly desire such goals and are ready to pursue them will see this Crafte for what it truly has to offer.
Know that any magic you make is real, because all of creation is an illusion that is very real. This is a paradoxical truth and one reason why genius and madness can walk hand in hand.
Realize that human evil is birthed from fear and greed, and these are the stepchildren of arrogance and ignorance.
Realize that all forms of slavery and violence are our enemy. Yet we will aid and defend, for such are our oaths.
We walk this path in partnership with the Divine as their children, and thus we have great possibility, and responsibility.
* Editor’s Note: The author has used the older spelling of “Crafte” here for historical reasons… and because it has not yet been the title of a major motion picture!
I am a fourth-generation Appalachian Herbalist. Herbalism, hearth magic and ancestor worship make up a large part of my craft practice. I don’t separate my magical practices from my mundane life. My home is my temple and my apothecary. I find meaning, use and beauty in the things I have adorned and equipped my home with.
In my thirties, I took great joy in learning how to cook and bake in a wall-to-wall fireplace in a one-room cabin in the wilds of West Virginia with my ex-boyfriend. Two important times in my life I have gathered my water from a natural spring instead of from a city water source. In these instances, I gave thanksgiving to the water through seasonal rites of cleansing. I planted mint in my spring and called upon the Goddess to keep the water flowing and clean for consumption by chanting “Born of water, cleansing, powerful, healing, changing, I am.” (The chant is by Linda Lila from the CD Return of the Goddess, Sacred Chants for Women.) Water is very sacred to me and I find myself drawn to springs, creeks, rivers and waterfalls. The sound of water carries my mind away from mundane worries. Many times I have found a sense of peacefulness sitting beside the river on my favorite rock. This makes it easier for me to carry out my work and open to spirit and guidance.
Though I do work with the deities of the Feri Tradition, I don’t always need to participate in Deity worship to wield my craft. My work with the beings, plants and animals of nature can also be described as “shamanistic”. I gain understanding by listening to the spirits of nature and observing the plants and animals around me. I often see the image of a specific plant that a person needs for healing when I ask the plants for guidance. After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I began seeing the common mallow plant (Malva neglecta) everywhere and was relieved to discover this plant heals issues of the gut. The plant spirits had pointed me to an ally that would prove to be very helpful for my specific disease process. My Appalachian ancestors used the leaves and shoots as cooking greens and salad ingredients, while the seeds were used to accent dishes. The plant’s traditional medicinal uses included soothing skin rashes and easing coughs. Most importantly for me, it is also used to reduce inflammation in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.
Mallow Root Coffee
Use a digging tool to unearth a dozen or more common mallow taproots.
Remove stems and leaves and wash and scrub roots with a vegetable brush.
Chop the clean roots into 1/4 inch pieces and spread them out in a roasting pan.
Roast in a 350 degree oven until dark brown, about 30-45 minutes.
Grind and brew like coffee beans, combining with roasted chicory, dandelion, or coffee if desired.
I follow the rules of nature and consequence. My craft is not a religion; it is a daily practice of observation, prayer and listening. I work with items taken from or derived from nature such as bark, feathers, flowers, gemstones, herbs, rocks and soil. I gather my tools from my garden or woods and ethically wild harvest in the Appalachian forests surrounding my home. I prefer the company of nature and a few close friends. I feel most peaceful and powerful while working in nature.
I follow the rhythms of the moon and the seasons, and I plant during the appropriate time of the moon to bring about the desired outcome. I learned these techniques from my Great Grandmother, Grandmother and parents as a child watching them plant and harvest in our gardens. My father, grandmother and I often set out early in the morning with our backpacks loaded with trowels and lunch ready to hunt for treasures. I became acquainted with bloodroot (Sanguinara Canadensis), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and other early spring herbs and flowers. I loved bringing our finds to Great Grandma Jack. She steeped the gathered mullein leaves for several minutes in boiling water and made a tea to drink as a cold remedy. A mullein root brew can also be administered to small children for the croup. However, she advised that it was best to gather the roots in the fall after the flowers had died away. Coltsfoot leaf, boiled in water and sweetened with honey, was also a well-tried remedy of hers for the common cold.
I make medicine as act of rebellion against Big Pharma, as part of my relationship with the plants and to honor the heritage of my Appalachian ancestors. I like knowing where my medicines come from. I enjoy having a relationship with and understanding the plants, watching them grow and respecting their wisdom as I harvest and celebrate the power of the plants I used to heal myself and others with. I believe it is vitally important for an herbalist to live with her plants. To know them and fully understand them, she must smell, see, hear, and live with them. This is part of the Craft of the Wise. I have been able to identify the plants of Appalachia since I was a child. It has only been in the last five years that I have come more fully into my understanding of the medicinal uses of the plants by completing basic and advanced herbal medicine programs. Every herb and root has a medicinal and magical property of some sort. Each shows its properties by its form, shape and spirit. This Doctrine of Signatures is a part of my craft of knowing and being aware.
The herbs I use in my Craft practice are not the same as used in other traditions. I use herbs and roots from plants that grow in Appalachia, whereas Traditions like Conjure may use plants that grow in other regions. It is important to note that many of the herbs and plants famous for their magical properties are highly toxic if ingested. It’s very important to never ingest plants unless you know exactly what they are and what effect they will have on the human body. Some herbs used in Traditional flying ointments are not safe for ingestion, such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) or Datura (Datura stramonium).
In general, most of the herbs in this recipe will cause your body temperature to drop and pulse rate to quicken. The “Witches Flying Ointment” produces psychedelic effects and was said to be used by Witches in the Middle Ages. It consisted mainly of parsley, hemlock, water of aconite, poplar leaves, soot, belladonna and henbane. The ointment was supposedly rubbed on various parts of a Witch’s body to enable her to “fly” off to the Sabbat. The ointment induced incredible hallucinations, psychic visions and astral projections.
Melt four parts shortening, over low heat, to one part herb mixture.
Heat on low for approximately 4 hours. Strain into a heat proof container, add 1/2 to one teaspoon tincture of benzoin as a preservative.
Mix equal parts of: cinquefoil (Potentilla), hellebore (Helleborus niger) and henbane into an ointment.
Spread a small amount ointment on arms and legs. Be careful not to ingest any ointment.
Common aromatic herbs like sage (Salvia officinalis) are not only good for culinary and medicinal use but also have surprising magical uses too. Sage is one of the best protection herbs there is. It can shield you from evil and harm, banishing negative influences and aiding in divination work. Sage smudge bundles come to mind for me.
I honor the spirits of the land and my Appalachian and Native American ancestors in my practices. My family has lived in the same area of Appalachia for over 150 years. One afternoon, as my sister and I were playing in the creek behind my Grandmother’s house, a bee stung my sister. Grandma immediately sent me down the creek bank to search for the brilliantly orange and yellow colored jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). She knew jewelweed soothed many skin ailments, including bee stings and rashes caused by poison ivy. Later, as an adult, I learned our native orange and yellow jewelweed is part of the Impatiens family. The annual flower Impatiens we plant in our flower gardens each spring is related to the jewelweed native beauty. Grandma used to simmer a quart of jewelweed in a pot of boiling water for ten minutes. She would take the strained mixture and apply it to affected areas of the skin.
Gather a fistful of jewelweed plants by lightly grasping the stems and pulling upward to unearth the shallow roots.
Shake the roots to dislodge soil and crumble the entire plant into large pot.
Add fresh water to cover the crumbled plants and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, place a lid on the pot, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Allow the orange decoction to cool to room temperature and pour through a strainer into jars or ice cube trays.
Refrigerate jars or freeze trays and dispense as needed for stings, bites, or rashes.
I was born on Memorial Day and spent my birthdays at our family cemetery cleaning, tending, playing and adorning the graves with flowers and mementos. I remember having conversations and learning things from family members who had died years before I was born. My Grandma served favorites foods of our dead on these Memorial Day picnic dinners, like green bean sandwiches and wilted lettuce topped with bacon. These visits taught me respect for my ancestors. I am passing this on to my daughter whom I named after my favorite herb, and I hope she will become the fifth generation of my family to learn the Craft of the Wise. We are Appalachian Herbalists!
[I’ve updated the title on this essay because too many readers were missing the statements that “these are tools for thought” and “not definitive” and “not without overlap,” etc. I understand that not everyone finds contrasting pairs* helpful, and further that not everyone will recognize their communities in these Ways — in which case, don’t use the model; it’s not relevant! For those who DO recognize these as dominant narratives in their communities, and have experienced (as I have) the conflicts that arise from not acknowledging them or respecting the differing points of view, I hope this way of thinking helps you. It would have helped me tremendously ten years ago!
*See the post-postscript for why these two ways do not form a meaningful dichotomy.]
I came to the Craft primarily through the workshop model of learning and teaching. In this model, a teacher (sometimes from inside the local community, but often from outside of it) presents a day-long or weekend intensive on a particular area of Craft practice. A fee is charged, usually on par with what a small church charges for a spiritual retreat. The relationship between teacher and student is a professional one: time, skills, and information are exchanged for dollars. After the workshop is over, if the student is very lucky or lives in a tight community, s/he may be able to work with what s/he learned in the context of a group or coven. More likely, s/he is left to work with the material on her own—at least until s/he can attend the next workshop.
There are variations on this model that have advantages and disadvantages, of course: some communities emphasize peer teaching, and others provide linked series of workshops that a committed group experiences together. In general, however, the workshop model best supports people learning in groups but practicing on their own.
When I began to study Craft material derived from the teachings of Victor and Cora Anderson, I joined electronic mailing lists in order to learn more. The discussions I witnessed there perplexed me to no end. Some participants had dogged attachments to magical secrecy and in-person, unpaid, one-on-one teaching that struck me as superstitious, almost nonsensical. Their reasons, when explained, might as well have been in another language; their perceptions of the Craft and its meaning left me helplessly scratching my head. I wondered if some of them were just plain crazy.
Fast-forward some years. My workshop-based training sent me down a spiritual rabbit hole that I now recognize as a drawn-out initiatory crisis. I was largely without supervision, though I had a peer working group for support. I struggled, formed deeper relationships with the gods and spirits of my tradition, and leaned hard on my friends.
By that point, I was becoming disillusioned with the workshop model of teaching the Craft, at least for anything that was not strictly skill-based. I had been introduced to gods and spirits in these workshops and then left to negotiate my relationships with them on my own. The road was rough, and I felt abandoned, having no one who had walked the path before to advise me.
Happily, I reconnected with a friend in the tradition who was willing to teach me. We circled together, and as my training focused in toward initiation, something amazing happened: all the stuff those crazy witches on mailing lists had been saying suddenly began to make sense.
I realized that there is more than one kind of witchcraft, more than one way of being a witch—and I don’t mean “there are different traditions of witchcraft.” The differences I’m talking about cross traditions and often exist uncomfortably side by side in a single tradition. I had initially been trained in a late twentieth/early twenty-first ethos of the Craft (ethos is the characteristic spirit of a group or culture, especially as exemplified in its beliefs, practices, customs, and ethics). For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call this ethos the “New Way.”
When my eventual initiator and I began working together, though, my eyes were opened to the existence of the “Old Way”—a Craft ethos that is internally coherent and, importantly, not particularly compatible with the New. In the Old Way, I found what I had been so earnestly seeking. I was lovingly initiated, and the Old Way became my own.
I write this essay because, although there is nothing wrong with either of these ways of doing the Craft, many people seek to practice witchcraft without realizing that these differing ways exist. That lack of awareness leads at best to confusion among people who try to work together, and at worst, ethical violations and ongoing conflict.
My purpose here is to explain the Old Way and the New Way in broad and even deliberately oversimplified terms. These two ways have some basis in history—the New Way is rooted in the Human Potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s, while the Old Way harkens back to traditional societies of many kinds. However, I don’t see these as “pure paradigms” that witches should strive to emulate. The reality of life is that almost no one practices the Craft purely “the Old Way” or “the New Way” (my own practice, though tipped toward the Old, contains elements of both). However, in defining these two ways of doing the Craft for myself, I’ve been able to unpack my own confusion when I, as a witch trained in New Way workshops, first encountered Old Way witches. This model has also helped me understand the philosophical differences that underlie persistent conflicts in our traditions, as well as uncovering where ethical pitfalls lie when combining Old and New Ways.
I’ve tried to avoid politicized terms such as “New Age witchcraft” and “traditional Witchcraft,” as I find they cause readers to bring too many pre-existing assumptions to the discussion. I hope that readers will allow themselves to recognize similarities between the ways I define here and these other concepts without leaping to the conclusion that they are identical.
TL;DR: “The Old Way” and “The New Way” are categories that I have created to help readers think about differences in approaches to the Craft. They are not meant to be definitive or 100% historically-based, and it is normal for an individual witch to have elements of both.
Time and Justice
The New Way: Time may be thought of as linear or cyclic, but in either case, it is ruled by a myth of progress (cyclical time might be modeled as a rising spiral, for instance). The New Way is often millennial or apocalyptic. The human species is thought to be approaching a cusp or already in the middle of a great change, the beginning of a New Age or New Aeon. Witches may see themselves as trying to influence humanity to make particular choices and alliances in order to avoid a species-wide extinction. The New Way’s sense of time is that it is short, and spiritual action in the direction of justice is urgent. Witches may see themselves as attempting to steer great natural forces with planet-wide survival as the stakes.
The Old Way: Time is cyclic, and claims that a New Aeon is at hand are seen without urgency. For a witch practicing the Old Way, every Aeon is a New Aeon and every time is one of great change. Although witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues, they are skeptical of governments, ideologies, and organizations, seeing them as fundamentally ephemeral. For Old Way witches, social movements and ideologies—as well as disasters, famines, and wars—are like waves in the ocean: to attempt to alter their path only results in being swept up by them. Old Way witches are concerned with riding the waves, and helping those around them do so too; they are unlikely to claim the power to steer. Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.
Self, Community, and Training
The New Way: The development of the individual self is a primary goal for New Way witches. Embracing the feminist motto that “the personal is political,” the New Way witch sees hirself as the first thing s/he must transform in order to bring about harmony in the community and the world. Because the foundational work of witchcraft is individual, New Way witches don’t tend to see a cohesive group as essential to their Craft. Individual distance training as well as short-term trainings such as workshops and classes are considered effective methods of conveying the essence of the Craft. Each individual’s self is seen as unique, and training is often aimed at uncovering the authentic self. Much attention may be given to the question of identity and to building political or spiritual alliances with identity groups, from whom co-practitioners may be drawn. Authority and any credentials the witch claims are usually granted by teachers rather than by peers or students.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch is defined primarily by hir role in community, which grants hir whatever authority s/he holds. Maintaining community cohesion is an important goal, and it may be pursued even when doing so disadvantages the witch. Old Way witches make their living as others in their community do (for example, in rural communities, by farming or producing goods; in urban communities, by pursuing a profession), but they also take on tasks that discomfort or disturb others: treating the sick and the old; adjudicating disputes; preparing the dead for burial; looking into the future; casting or removing curses; advising the desperate. Perhaps because their loyalties are not solely to the human community, witches who serve in this way may find themselves set apart from others. Further, the nature of their work is marked by the particular community and land that they serve. Any training that they grant, therefore, is deeply personal, a product of their specific time and place. For them, there is no generic “Craft” that can be taught outside of that context. Individual self-development work, if pursued at all, is seen as secondary to forming relationships with land and neighbors of many kinds. If the witch has a coven, this small group of fellow outsiders may be treated as a sacred haven, the only place the witch feels fully seen.
Secrecy and Silence
The New Way: The New Way witch usually sees little to no useful role for secrecy and magical silence. Bigotry is believed to be based on ignorance, the antidote to which is knowledge. For the New Way witch, being open about witchcraft practices protects witches and helps to secure them their rights under the law. Secrecy is thought to have been useful only in the past, when mainstream culture was more overtly Christian and witches were in danger if they were exposed. Now that witches can safely be public in many parts of the Western world, it is the duty of all witches to band together to support any witches who are still being discriminated against. As for magical secrecy, it is generally irrelevant; the mysteries of witchcraft traditions have to be experienced and can’t be fully conveyed in a book or on a website, so there is no need to keep them secret. The keys to the mysteries can be hidden in plain sight, since only those who are ready for them will see them.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch sees women’s rights, gay rights, movement toward racial equality, and protection for non-dominant religions as extremely recent developments. Given the patterns of domination and violence that have marked the course of human history, these rights are viewed as potentially fleeting and not to be taken for granted. Secrecy and circumspection still provide protection for the witch, whose community may fear hir as much as value hir. Further, magical secrecy is part of what builds the container of intimacy that the witch may share with a few carefully chosen students or peers. This container deepens the intensity of shared magical work in much the same way as confidences between lovers deepen a sexual relationship. When peers are absent, secrecy may sometimes make a witch lonely. The Old Way witch, however, assumes that most people will not understand hir work, much of which others find uncomfortable or disturbing. S/he also must guard against those whose interest in the Craft is purely self-motivated, rather than in service of community. It is better to be lonely than to see sacred knowledge mocked or misused.
The New Way: New Way witches are accustomed to living in a capitalist economy, where money is the default basis of exchange and education happens formally at schools or universities. For them, charging money for training in witchcraft helps to legitimize the Craft in the public eye and makes it more accessible to the modern world, which deeply needs its insights. Teachers who are paid for their work are thought to be able to focus more completely on their Craft and raise the quality of their material and their instruction, which creates better value for students. New Way witches may also sell spiritual counseling sessions, spellwork, witchcraft supplies, witchcraft instruction books and videos, and more, either in person or over the internet, and they may use modern marketing techniques to do so. For New Way witches, nothing is profane except that people make it so; money is simply a form of energy exchange and can be made sacred with fair trades and good intentions. These witches work to make such training widely available because they see themselves as serving a global community. Most believe that anyone can become a witch, and that most people should.
The Old Way: The Old Way witch often makes a living doing work that complements her witchcraft (for example, growing food or herbs, nursing, teaching, counseling, scholarship, arts or crafts, etc.), and s/he also may take money or barter for spells and remedies. Old Way witches, however, often dislike anything but the most perfunctory advertising of their witchcraft, as calling undue attention to oneself can be dangerous. Though they may write about the Craft, they are more likely to self-publish a plain-looking pamphlet than to offer up a colorful trade paperback from a major publisher. This is both to avoid attention from seekers who are not serious, and also because books are considered a poor substitute for person-to-person training. Old Way witches do not teach students for money, both because their Craft is so personal and because it is considered a calling, not a profession in the modern sense. Their teaching style is apprenticeship, in which the apprentice may be fostered in their house and takes on the status of a family member. A personal relationship is formed in which energy exchange is continuous: the student learns by assisting the witch in hir work. An Old Way witch wants to pass hir Craft only to a loved one, to a person who will care for the community they both serve after s/he is gone.
The New Way: The purpose of witchcraft is to change the world and remake it in the image of justice.
The Old Way: Witchcraft has no externally motivated purpose. It is done for its own sake, because we are here and in relationship with all beings around us.
If you have read these comparisons thinking that the Old Way only makes sense in a pre-mass media, rural setting, while the New Way sounds specifically adapted to the urban twenty-first century—well, you have a point. It’s a struggle to practice witchcraft of the Old Way in a society dominated by the internet, where most people live in cities and have limited contact with the seasons and the land, and in which people routinely move across the country for education and jobs.
But here’s the thing—the Old Way and the New Way are not equivalent. They produce different kinds of witchcraft, and different kinds of magic workers.
If the New Way makes sense to you, go for it. It’s a coherent way of working magic. And similarly, if the Old Way feels right in your heart and in your gut, then please do join those of us trying to preserve its intimacy in these rapidly-changing times. The Old Way, we believe, is a way that made sense to witches three, five, ten, fifteen generations ago; it’s a way of working magic that draws on the things that stay the same even as times change.
What I earnestly ask you not to do is to hybridize these two ways without deep reflection. The truth is, the Old Way and the New Way are already all mixed up in modern witchcraft traditions, and the fact that they reflect two separate and largely incompatible ways of being has not been recognized. The results have often been destructive.
Take, for example, the practice of teaching oathbound witchcraft material for money. In the New Way as I described it, the belief is that the mysteries are in plain sight, available (for example) in nature, in the rich literature of the Western occult tradition, in mythology, in poetry, and in the world’s religions. In the New Way, payment is meant to reimburse a professional teacher for their time and skill. When you add the concept of “occult secrets” to paid training, the teaching model becomes incoherent. If the mysteries are all in plain sight, then to sell “occult secrets” is at best misleading and at worst, a scam.
Some New Way witches nevertheless believe that Old Way witches have secret knowledge that should be available to the public. Attempts to infiltrate Old Way groups to steal their oathbound lore and then sell it in the spiritual marketplace, however, are sleazy and exploitative. Further, these attempts reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of oathbound material under the Old Way. Old Way “secrets” are passed from mouth to ear because they are the product of intimacy between witches, their gods, and each other. They are context-dependent and deeply personal—the magical equivalent of pillow talk between lovers. To sell these “secrets” for money is much like selling a family’s heirloom love letters while claiming they will help the reader have better sex—an invasion of privacy that does not bring the world anything genuinely new, no matter what the marketing claims.
Witchcraft of the Old Way is often not served well by New Way approaches either. Because we are all living in the twenty-first century, and most of us are Americans and heir to the United States’ heritage of rabid individualism, it is the rare witch who understands what it means to be defined primarily by one’s community role. Most of us struggle to imagine how de-emphasizing the individual could be a good thing; we have probably noticed that without self-work, one tends to get mentally unbalanced, unstable witches who are little good to those around them.
In the past, perhaps, the fact that one could not choose one’s community and must cleave to it for survival molded witches differently. Today, in an era defined by individualism and mobility, some kind of explicit self-work seems necessary for magical workers. Our emphasis on unique individual identity, however, complicates “self” and “ego” work and has undermined our ability to maintain stable communities and small groups. The willingness to compromise and negotiate on matters large and small has waned as people’s perceived options for distance community have increased. Many self-identifying witches now practice without in-person teacher or peers, preferring to seek out others who share their niche interests on the internet. Because no local group fits the practitioner’s highly specific sense of identity, no local group can ever be “good enough”—and the witch’s opportunities to experience intimacy in practice are much reduced. The modern sense of disconnection, of true community always just beyond reach, plagues witches of all types, regardless of whether they find themselves attracted to the Old or the New Way; but is it particularly destructive for Old Way witches, whose practice requires local, embodied relationship.
To close, I will simply repeat that the “Old Way” and “New Way” as defined here are primarily meant as tools for thought. They are a product of my observations of modern witches and of my own evolution in understanding of the Craft, not the result of historical research. However, I think they help to untangle some common debates in witchcraft. Rather than seeing our debate opponents as necessarily wrong, we could instead see them as working within a different, internally coherent ethos of the Craft.
Additionally, I’d like to suggest that both Old Way and New Way witches would benefit if they respectfully declined to work together, at least closely in a coven or circle. While Old Way and New Way witches have the potential to be allies, in intimate working situations, their contrasting values set them up for bitter conflict. As in many areas of life, distance can be healthy.
POSTSCRIPT: I’m a little surprised to hear readers describing the Old Way as “apolitical” or “disengaged” or “not interested in social justice.” To quote from the above: “witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues… Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.” Having a purely local focus for one’s service (and perhaps a pessimistic outlook on our effective reach as individuals) is not the same as having no interest in justice.
I see this as a misunderstanding among witches of different approaches: there seems to be a perception that if service work doesn’t have a national or global focus, or if it doesn’t use the language of activism, it’s not really justice work. My own justice work (primarily in advocacy for sexual minorities and around sexual ethics), has resembled more the New Way than the Old; but I would like to see people who do their service locally–perhaps without talking much about it or formally joining a justice-oriented organization–given more respect.
Additionally, I see some readers assuming that despite all the nice things I have to say about the New Way, I don’t really mean them; what I *really* think is that the Old Way is the One True Craft. Well, I don’t think that, plain and simple. I continue to have some New Way elements in my practice–for instance, I’ve taught witchcraft workshops for money before, and I might do it again if I felt that a professional, short-term teacher/student relationship was the appropriate one for the material. I also still greatly value my relationships with particular Reclaiming practitioners and communities (love you, TejasWeb!). I’m glad that witches are walking a New Way path, even if I’m not walking it myself anymore. The fact that I wouldn’t join a Reclaiming coven at this point in my life is not because I don’t think Reclaiming witches are awesome, but because the core of what we want from witchcraft is different; and if we tried to circle together we’d probably all get really frustrated!
Additionally, just to be clear, this essay has nothing at all to do with Pagan traditions that don’t consider themselves witchcraft, nor with the Pagan community as a whole. The intended audience here is one that doesn’t think of “witchcraft” as strictly Pagan, and definitely not as synonymous with contemporary Paganism.
Further, I am sure there are more ways of doing the Craft than just two! However, when I think about the witches I know who have broken each other’s hearts, who are still curled up around betrayals or perceived betrayals that happened years or decades ago, thinking about these two Ways (with their differing expectations and obligations) has often made the cause of the conflict clearer. Although often not fully articulated, one or both narratives have informed all of the Craft communities I have been part of (Faery/Feri, Reclaiming, BTW).
In any case… Please don’t make this essay be about how one group of people or another suck, because that is very much NOT what I think. This essay is about how some witches are really different from each other, and that is not because one set or another is wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, THEY CAN BOTH BE RIGHT. If we can acknowledge our differences and respect them, I think the possibility of mostly-Old Way witches and mostly-New Way witches being able to be allies (at least in certain areas) would be much greater.
That’s not possible, though, so long as we cannot conceptualize each others’ positions in positive terms. The New Way and Old Way as I’ve described them here are both GOOD THINGS. That’s how I see them, anyway–though I am beginning to realize that some readers see some of their qualities as obvious flaws; so obvious, in fact, that surely NO ONE could EVER think they were virtues. And it’s right there that communication breaks down… To understand one another, we need to be able to imagine that some way of being that would be terrible and broken for us could be beautiful and healthy for someone else. (BDSM educators, I’m sure this point sounds familiar!)
So yeah. I know it’s all too easy to perceive someone else’s very different point of view as a moral failing, rather than as a product of benign human variation. I’ve done it; we all do it. But let’s try a different way today, okay?
Old Way with a sprinkle of New, carefully considered. New Way with a sprinkle of Old, deeply contemplated. A concept of BENIGN HUMAN VARIATION, plus the realization that just as not everyone is cut out to be married to each other, not every kind of witch is meant to circle or coven together. Even in the wake of terrible witch wars and years-long conflicts… In appreciating difference, could there be a basis of friendship there, or at least civility? Perhaps the potential to work harmoniously on projects of mutual concern?
I hope so, very much.
POST-POSTSCRIPT: Initially when folks referred to these two ways as a dichotomy, I agreed, thinking, well, they have some oppositional qualities that are in tension, sure. But I’m rethinking that. Just because these ways have been perceived as a dichotomy in various Craft communities doesn’t mean that they are.
Thinking in dichotomies is always tempting because they are such useful teaching tools. Anyone who has ever taught a small child knows the usefulness of pairs like big/little, quiet/loud, and yummy/yucky. Most child development books teach parents to present no more than two options for any given choice, because small children are otherwise easily overwhelmed or confused by more. (Heck, my kid sometimes looks at me wide-eyed when there are two — he’d rather there be one which he can accept or refuse.) Even the education of older children and adults often begins with a simplified model of a topic so students can get some signposts in places before they learn more. If one is studying Buddhism, for example, the most common way to introduce the topic is to contrast Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism — not because these are the only forms, but because they are historically important and present helpful contrasts. Knowledge of these major branches of the tradition can provide context for studying others.
The truth is, all dichotomies are false.
Shall I repeat that?
All dichotomies are false.
The world is a complicated place. Any contrasting pair leaves out myriad other options. Nor does a contrasting pair necessarily describe extremes that define a middle ground. Some pairs helpfully define a spectrum; others are more like areas on a grid.
I’m not sure yet what I think the relationship of this particular Old Way and New Way are to each other. Some facets are in opposition, such as their attitudes toward secrecy and whether or not the teaching relationship should also be a love or family relationship. Some are more complementary, like their approaches to justice, with the New Way being more big-picture while the Old Way is very locally-oriented. With that latter pairing, though, I don’t see the two categories as exclusive. I imagine few New Way witches engage in justice work with no local component at all; and similarly, in this age of mass media, I doubt any Old Way witch does local justice work with no knowledge of national or global issues.
Further, although the New Way is well-adapted to our current historical moment (in fact, I would say it is a response to it!), the Old Way reads like an artifact, a portrait of a way that fits uncomfortably with the demands of modern life. I think in the 1970s and 1980s, many witches saw the evolving New Way as an heir to the Old. Today, this conception of the two makes less sense to me, as the differences in their purposes and effects seem increasingly stark. The fact that New and Old Way witches attempting to circle together consistently spend more time fighting among themselves than actually doing their work leads me to believe that the distance between the two is more than a simple generational gap.
To connect this P.P.S. back to the main essay, I am still convinced that although there are some areas in which practitioners of these two ways can borrow from each other, there remain many areas in which attempts to combine the two ways result either in ethical problems or in a loss of effectiveness. Witches who are attracted to the Old Way, I think, would benefit greatly in talking among themselves about how an intimate Old Way ethos can be best translated into a modern world dominated by communications technology.
Since I am no longer an active part of a witchcraft community practicing the New Way, I can’t speak to what witches practicing that way most need. What I do know from my time there is that some New Way witches are anxious that something essential to their Craft has been lost with the decline of the Old Way, which is what has driven the publication of so much formerly oathbound material. I don’t believe this is the case; I think for those who are called to it, the New Way really is complete unto itself.
Do the Old Way and the New need each other? I think they do not; just as in love relationships, to need someone often comes with the desire to control them. Instead, I continue to dream of a relationship based not on need, but on mutual respect and friendship.
[Thanks for Yvonne Aburrow for a thoughtful response to this article and to those who commented there.]
And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul with power.
— from Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland
Witches generally speaking work in small groups and have a certain anti-authoritarian, anarchistic bent. The latter is especially true of traditions like Faery which have no effective hierarchy beyond “initiate/non-initiate”* but it remains a trait of even (relatively) more hierarchical traditions. As people experiment with more “churchy” organizational structures, that tendency may wane; however I think that inevitably the “witchiness” of a given group will wane along with it. In his post“When Wicca is Not Wicca”Jason Mankey says “Wicca works best in covens, and not groups of 200 people.” This is emphatically also true of other forms of religious witchcraft, possibly more so. But why? And what do hierarchy, authority, and group size actually have to do with one another?
Part of the answer I believe lies in the monkeysphere, also known asDunbar’s number. This is an anthropological theory which states that there is a practical limit, determined by the size of the neocortex, to the number of others that a human being or other primate can perceive as distinct individuals; therefore, a limit to how many individuals with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Groups above that number tend to either break apart or develop restrictive rules and norms in order to maintain stability, along with ever-more-authoritarian means of enforcing those rules. That number for human beings is somewhere between 150 and 250, depending on a number of factors including how much outside pressure there is to force cohesion and how much the members communicate and interact.
Wait a minute… I just said that witchcraft works better in small groups, much smaller than 150. Dunbar’s number is the upper limit of any kind of group cohesion, including the kind between neighbors and tradition members. It’s worth noting in this context that not long after the number of Feri initiates passed 250, the tradition split. The level of intimacy required between coven members in order to functionasa coven… in order to do good magic… is far greater. I would say, an order of magnitude greater. It just so happens that if you reduce Dunbar’s number by one order of magnitude, you get 15… which is darn close to the traditional number of 13 witches in a coven.
Well and good. This is a rationale for why witchcraft traditions are (dis)organized the way they are, and a counter to the arguments for bigger organizations and paid clergy (which by necessity go together). Note that I am not saying that Pagans can’t have large organizations or church-type structures, if they wish. What I am saying though is that it is a trade-off, and that if you choose a hierarchical group with by-laws and dues and so forth you are choosing not to have the kind of intimacy with one another that is an inherent feature of smaller groups. I am also saying that once you do that, it’s going to become less and less like witchcraft, and more and more like Baptists.
I don’t have one single thing against Baptists as such. But there is a reason why I am no longer one, and part of it is that my current religion feels more like home. I am respected and seen in some important ways that I did not experience in the religious tradition I was raised in, despite their genuine efforts to reach out to all members of the congregation as a matter of both theology and practice. I would like to suggest here that it’s possible that one of the most significant things which create the difference between a Pagan group and a Christian one is not actually theology but structure. That is because most people, unless they take it up as a hobby, are fairly fuzzy about theology, but everyone participates in the way their particular religious tradition is structured… by necessity. Which in turn shapes both behavior and ideas.
The notion of the monkeysphere and its corollary with regard to coven size also points to some valuable insights about how witchcraft groups should work: spending non-focused social time together as a group, one on one time with each other as individuals, talking out how the group as a whole feels about various issues. Of course, all that requires time, and some months it’s all my coven can do to get together for ritual, but on the other hand the majority of our “ritual” time is actually spent eating and talking…
That intimacy is important for its own sake, but it is not “just” social time. We humans are social creatures; it defines us. The relative lack of rules and enforcement in a small, intimate group, where boundaries of behavior are negotiated between individuals of equal standing, means that such a group has the potential for reaching an ideal balance between compassion and freedom possible nowhere else; the addition of religious ritual has the added bonus of fostering group cohesion without having to enforce additional constraints. And because we are not just talking about a quirk of religious witchcraft traditions but inherent qualities associated with being human, all of this also has implications for society as a whole. “How can we best be human with one another?” is perhaps the most crucial question we can ask. How can we retain that humanity when, as we must, we are dealing with the larger world? I think ironically the answer lies in those small groups, where we can be seen most fully as ourselves, and learn to see others most fully as well.
*I know some people have attempted to assert or form a hierarchy with wand colors indicating rungs, however I am here to tell you that it never actually worked.
“To know, to dare, to will and to be silent.” These are the four powers of the Sphinx within Hermetics, which were written by Eliphas Levi and found their way into modern Witchcraft and Wicca (as so much Hermetic material has). They are well known but often less understood. We can surmise that “to know” is to be learned and to gain knowledge, “to dare” is to go forth and do with courage, “to will” is to utilize one’s True Will to create change (magic) as well as to withstand the dangers of the Spirits, and “to be silent” is to hold silence and not speak of one’s workings. Each of these “powers” could be an article or even a book, but for this blog I would like to focus on silence.
My own tradition of Witchcraft had a sundering in part because of the fourth Power of the Sphinx. To…Be…Silent. Some of our initiates felt strongly that the Tradition needed to be out there and ministered to the public. They had written books, were teaching publicly (some for free and some for pay) and were discussing inner secrets (though there were disagreements as to what was actually secret between lineages) on e-lists and with non-initiates. Many arguments ensued between those of us who felt that we should have never come out into public view at all and those who felt that we needed to liberate the masses from their shackles.
This argument, gentle readers, is really between the priests (be they of any faith) and the witches who walk multiple paths at once. You see, the priest desires to be of service to the community and to help the profane to enter into a state of grace and healing via his Gods or Tradition. From the priests’ cause arise temples, books, public litany, services and a priest caste dedicated to enlightening the masses. Noble to be sure, but the work of priests has nothing to do with witchcraft, and usually they are opposed.
The witch is something else and desires liberation of self as the focus of her work, as opposed to working only on others or as a guru. The witch walks the “twixt” roads of the Spirits alone. The witch is not popular–hell, the witch is not usually liked, and that is fine because the power of the witch does not arise from the populace, it arises from the Spirits with whom she holds her vows. The witch does not sell her secrets for coin or ego gain, because the milk and breath of the Spirits themselves sustain her and allow her to live the life she so chooses. In other words, the witch may accept coin for services rendered, such as a tarot reading or a love charm for a lonely client or a curse well paid, but to sell her lore, the roads she travels, the names of her Gods, or the council of the Spirits is another matter entirely. She would dare not risk a loss of her Spirit bonds for the bondage of the church of Feri and its denizens or the shackles of false guru-hood, or be bound to the men of clay and their unabating hunger. For the witch cannot feed them; she can only walk among them, hidden in plain sight.
Unfortunately, both sides in this confusing debate shut down, and the tradition known as Feri cracked in two. There were those who felt a Mystery Tradition of Witchcraft cloaked in silence–more hidden from public view, and certainly not sold–was of utmost importance; and there were those who felt the true path was activism and work to heal and help the masses as their primary mission, as well as to share the Tradition with as many as possible in the form of a priesthood. Those of us who split away towards a more silent mystery tradition had our trust broken by the Feri Priests who took our sacred knowledge and published it, sold tickets to witch camps, sold merchandise, classes, and workshops. A whore house of our Lady was made and we wept. In the old days, a witch did not utter that she was so to anyone outside of her circle, and while times may have changed and some of us do indeed expose ourselves to the light, we here in the shadows would never dream of selling our lore, teachings, spells and secrets to the outside world.
Regardless of your opinion as to the split itself, the question still remains about actual silence. To be silent. What are we silent about and why? And why does it matter to be silent as a Witch? Why does silence matter in magic and to the Spirits?
I was taught the lore of the night and of liminal spaces, and that to be silent was of the utmost importance to traversing these roads. I learned that to speak of a spell before its fruition was to kill it, and later I learned that most people, because they are not of our witch-blood, do not understand our ways and indeed deeply fear what we do. This is because we as witches walk the path of the Opposer and of the Ophidian bifurcated mysteries. We are not here to convince anyone of our rights or to change their minds because we have had a deeply profound experience. We are here as witches to work on ourselves through transgression, to free oneself from oneself, and to connect with our Gods and Spirits. The more we keep in silence, the more we can do our work without the interference of the curiosity seeker or the people who wish to destroy us or steal our secrets.
I never share my inner workings or profound experiences with the Spirits. That, of course, is my choice, but I also follow the magicians and witches who came before me in regards to keeping silent. I have no problem with magical folk making a living from their arts, actually. I never did. My trust to keep silent was not unilateral in Feri, and as I saw myself and those who felt as I do lose more and more ground, I began to realize the importance of silence even more.
I used to argue and beg and try to convince my brethren who were teaching the Tradition for money that this was wrong and they were misguided, but after a time I began to realize that my energy was in vain. After a painful few years, I realized what had happened was that Feri had hived off into a Church with dogma and structure and exercises open to all, where priests were charging for entrance–a completely separate thing from the mystery tradition of witchcraft that it began as. To be sure, the priests have their mysteries and their magic, but a mystery tradition of witchcraft has nothing to do with profit or ministering to the masses.
The Sufis speak of such sundering, and I suppose it was only a matter of time that it would happen here as the tradition grew past its original few covens and into hundreds and hundreds of people. The priests of Feri have chosen to steward the masses and to shepherd them toward healing, and that is okay. We all have our parts to play and paths to walk. It is different from those of us who choose to walk the twisted and uncanny path of witchcraft alone. In walking this path, silence is probably one of the most important skills that a Witch and Magician can cultivate. So, I looked more deeply into why silence is important to the witch in regards to her inner traditions and lore, and I want to share what I have discovered about silence with you.
Why Silence is Important
Why would we wish to keep such amazing mysteries hidden? Why, when we have discovered such liberation and magic, would we not wish to share these things with the world, to lift them up and to help them out of their degradation? (Insert pamphlet of every major religion here, and NO thank you!) Here are my answers to those questions as a Traditional Witch.
The importance of silence in terms of keeping lore, or even keeping silent the fact that one was a magician or a Witch, was not lost on the Ancients. Most of the Mystery Cults of yore were passed orally, and to this day we know little of what actually happened in many of them, other than they were ‘there’ along with a few tidbits. A great example of these cults were the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, which were some type of agricultural and immortality cult and were regarded with respect and importance by the local and uninitiated people. Of course the populace knew that there was a Mystery tradition happening, but the inner lore and secrets were vigorously and violently guarded. There was a four-tiered system that preserved the inner mysteries for a select and learned few, but allowed many more of the masses to be involved and participate on a more surface level. Because of the rigors of entering the inner circle of initiates, those involved were less likely to spill the beans because they had worked so hard to attain their positions. However, it was not just a ‘mystical cool kids club’ that kept them silent. Many of the philosophers of the day such as Pythagoras (who was involved in a mystery mathematical cult), Socrates, Plato, Aristoxenus and Ammonius all knew and wrote about the importance of being silent for magical purposes. There was at the time an older doctrine of silence prior to ‘The Four Powers of the Sphinx’ called “The Mecurial Doctrine of Hermes,” which had five principles and may well have influenced Levi’s work. Below are the translated fragments.
And Mercury saith:………….
They were as follows:
That sharing holy matters with profane minds pollutes them:
“You may call Ammon; but summon no one else, lest a discourse which treats of the holiest of themes, and breathes the deepest reverence, should be prophaned by the entrance and presence of a throng of listeners…” (Asclepius prologue 1b [Scott])
That profane minds simply cannot grasp holy doctrine and often will mock those who preach it and are incited by the holy to commit violence or a greater evil because of lack of understanding:
“But avoid converse with the many…. the many will think you to be one who is laughed at… are never friends… and can urge bad men to more wickedness…. beware of talking to them, in order that, being in ignorance they may be less wicked.” (Stobaei Hermetica [Scott])
Silence allows the divine enlightenment (magic or spell work or inner guidance) to occur:
“And now, my son, speak not, but keep a solemn silence; so that the mercy will come down on us from God.” (Corpus Hermeticum 13.8a [Scott])
That it is futile to express the inexpressible:
“For there is, my son, a secret doctrine, full of holy wisdom, concerning Him who alone is lord of All and… whom to declare is beyond the power of man.” (Fragments 12 [Scott])
That silence stops and protects against mistranslation because the words themselves have power:
“Translation will greatly distort the sense of writings, and cause much obscurity. Expressed in our native language, the teaching conveys its meaning clearly; for the very quality of the sounds; and when the Egyptian words are spoken, the force of the things signified words in them…” (Corpus Hermeticum 16.1b-2 [Scott])
Interestingly, these sentiments are also expressed by Jesus when he states to his disciples that they should “understand the mysteries of the Word of God, and that the others (the people) should receive the parables only” (Matthew 13:10-4). And who could forget the famous line “cast not thy pearls unto swine” (Matthew 7:6), or the wonderful phrase from Psalms, “I have hid the words in my heart so I do not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:11).
We have here a later mirroring of the ancient Greek philosophers and magicians in Christian lore as to keep silent the mysteries from the masses and to keep silent the messages from the Gods themselves lest you incite their wrath. Virgil says of the Sibyl, “The Goddess comes, hence, hence, and ye prophane; The prophet cries, and from her grove refrain.” In other words, outside of the presence of the Goddess, keep your mouth shut. The mysteries, whether passed down as lore in a tradition or specifically from the Goddess to you, are meant for you alone at that particular time. Why would you reveal such intimacies to the world? Why risk angering the Spirits you have worked so hard to be in relationship with?
The obfuscation and disguising of lore in plain sight, which was to be opened up only from master to disciple, is found in many traditions from Masonic Lodges to lineages of Traditional Witchcraft. Sufi masters famously teach through story, which while read by the masses makes little or no sense or comes off as humorous, but read or taught ‘with eyes to see’ leads to enlightenment. There have also been many cryptic images from various private sources that hold clues from Traditional Witchcraft societies, Free Masonry and other magical Societies such as the A:.A.:. Some of these familiar and unfamiliar images in Traditional Witchcraft were collected and are now housed in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall. Each “image” has many meanings and lore behind it and may show spell components, ritual tools and the rituals themselves, all ‘hidden in plain sight” and relating to Traditional Witchcraft. Often the these entries include images known to Traditional Witchcraft such as the pentacle, the pin and nail, stang, crown, and various stellar lettering, but they also include (in code) how to use such items. This “code” would have been passed orally within a covine to ensure that were the images to be seen they would be unintelligible. Below is one such image of a magic circle and spell and a very certain Spirit to be called. Folks learned in ceremonial magic will know one of the Spirits here as his name is below!
Symbols of Traditional Witchcraft. A ritual in code. The Occult Reliquary, Three Hands Press, 2010.
These images will conjure reactions and feelings differently for each person who sees them, but they are indeed specific to Lodge societies and Witchcraft. To the casual observer or even student, they can be cryptic or oversimplified.
Another reason for silence is that the sharing of a working or your sacred altars or spaces with the masses opens you up to questions you might not be prepared to answer from people who definitely do not understand what you are doing. A simple example of this in my Tradition is that we do not believe in or adhere to the ‘Wiccan Rede’. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to explain myself or deal with angry Wiccans about this issue. Even trying to explain the history of how the Rede came into modern Wicca with its Hermetic and Thelemic and Christian roots incites more anger. These days, unless specifically asked, I tend not to try to convince people because they usually are too closed down to really hear.
One more good reason to be silent is to avoid negativity coming your way. Even if a person is not skilled at hexing, most folks can send negative energy at you, and this is difficult to deal with and causes you to have to engage in more cleansing and protection work instead of just doing your work. Exhausting to be sure! There are magicians and workers out there who are skilled, though, and who may wish to interfere with your work for many different reasons. Best to not let them know what you are up to, because then you can find yourself in a really difficult situation. You may also be working for clients who have had a curse laid on them by another witch, and you would not want the other witch to know you were working for said client because they would definitely interfere.
Then there is the problem of the “State” getting involved, such as the legal authorities, etc. As much as we like to say that we live in a “free” society here in the US and we have “religious freedom,” we are still living in a Christian nation and among Christians who make up the majority of said nation. Many people still have a fear of Witchcraft in their deep collective unconscious, and rhetoric such as “Suffer not a Witch to live” as read in the Bible or “If thou meet a Pagan kill them immediately” as read in the Koran certainly does not help. You could be lucky enough to run into the atheist government employee who does not think you are evil but thinks you are nuts. However, such encounters could still cause you problems. Best to walk among them and leave them at ease so you can get to your work. People have lost jobs and children because of prejudices against Pagans and Witches and Wiccans.
Speaking and telling of your workings also diffuses the power of them, especially during their process. I knew a Hoodoo Rootworker once who told me that the inner lore of his work could only be passed once. That is, he would lose all of his own power to do these magical things if he shared them, and so would only pass his power and tricks to the right student when he was ready to die. Makes you a bit more discerning to choose a student, does it not? Think of silence as being like a pressure building and building and then erupting with force and power. Wait, breathe, be silent, build power, release, have gratitude. Speaking of your workings not only can undermine them from the outside, but from the inside too, because your mind is always battling your True Will. This is the constant battle of the magician and the Witch, that is, to keep their minds flexible so that they can easily access a magical mindset. This is why so many Witchcraft rituals are filled with symbols: it is so we can bypass the mind and let the energy flow. It is also why we do so many exercises of purification and pattern breaking. We know we can be our own worst enemies too and that those little “you can’t” statements of the internal mind are very damaging. The symbols of the Craft are powerful indeed.
Symbols are important messages to our Fetch or Child Self, as it is known in my tradition, and are found in many occult places. Like the above examples in the image of Traditional Witchcraft, so too does that ancient tradition of Alchemy have its many secrets bound in iconography and symbol, both visible and yet hidden in plain sight. Many of the beautiful Renaissance and Medieval depictions of alchemical workings were known only to the initiates of its orders. Solve Et Coagula. The transmutation and complex change. Lead into Gold… physical gold or the transformation of the magician from base to enlightened…? A marriage of magic, science, will and Spirit. Can you imagine if you were to record all of your magical workings in an alchemical or pictorial code known only to your inner coven or circle? Would it not be something beautiful to behold in cryptic iconography and symbolism and a wonderful way to teach your students? Something to inspire the Fetch and the deeper selves….
Commonly known symbols in Alchemy.
Often mistakenly thought of as the Christian Devil, Baphomet is a great example of an alchemical process depicted in pictorial code. Each symbol above has a complex meaning… Solve et Coagula…
Of course, it is also important to keep our confidences with the Spirits and the Gods as well. They give their secrets and power to those who honor and work with them, and many of them do not like it when these secrets are shared with those who are not initiated or of your inner circle. The price of Hubris is always punishment from the Gods, and those Gods can come up with nasty teachings tailored just for you. You may have just had the MOST intense life changing experience in ritual with Hecate, and you may see things in a new light and wish to share and let others know ‘the Good News’. Please don’t. These things are especially for you from Her, tailored and suited for you at that time. My blood may run differently and my roads may lead elsewhere, and I am glad you had a great experience, but most likely it is not for me. If you desire to teach your inner mysteries and lore and transmit these things, let it be with one or a few screened students who you are sure are a good fit. Witchcraft and mysticism is not about healing or ‘getting better’. That is the road of religion, and I have no problem with that, it is just not the same thing.
Some people do feel called to share and teach publicly. I too love to teach and I write about many occult and magical topics, but of the inner workings of my tradition I will never speak or sell. There is a lot out there to research and share, but other things must be kept private, especially if you are part of a closed initiatory group or if instructed by a Spirit to do so. Also keep in mind why you would share some things and not others and the repercussions of your sharing. This can be a personal choice but it is also a serious one.
These are some interesting points to think about in regards to silence, and of course you will choose to do as you wish. I long ago abandoned the idea that I could ‘change anyone’s mind’ in regards to my views and experiences of Witchcraft. Take what you will upon the path. As I look, though, to the wisdom of the ancients and those who came before me as magicians and Witches, I see a long tradition of silence and of only sharing with those worthy. Make sure that those who you choose to share your most precious pearls with are indeed worthy of them, and be wary of those who share with anyone what they claim to be the wisdom of the Ages. Walk in magic and beauty, and let the mysteries reveal themselves to you in their own time and your own time. To force them is to beg for disaster.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Llewellyn Press. Donald Tyson Edition, 1994.
Davies, M. and Lynch, A. “Keepers of the Flame. Interviews with Elders of Traditional Witchcraft in America.” Olympian, 2001.
Marraccini, A. “Open Secrets: Alchemical-Hermetic Imagery in the Ripley Scrolls.” Charming Intentions: Occultism, Magic and the History of Art-Select Papers-Cambridge. Abraxis Special Issue #1. FulgarPress, 2013.
Schulke, D. The Occult Reliquary. Three Hands Press; The Museum of Witchcraft, 2010.
[Originally published in Witch Eye #9; republished by permission of the author.]
At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with just how ornery and fractious we appear to be from the outside. We hear it often enough. And it’s true; we ain’t exactly sweetness and light. Not too long ago, someone remarked to me, “You Feri-types aren’t quite what I expected. I mean, most of the folks I come across in Witchcraft groups these days try to act like nothing ever goes wrong, like they’re too ‘spiritually evolved’ for anything like that. Y’all don’t seem to mind being, well, openly quick-tempered. You’re a pretty irascible bunch!” I thought that was putting it rather politely.
A couple of days later, a student of mine complained that when she worked with the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, she “felt irascible.”
Irascible. It’s a curious word; you don’t really hear it used in conversation very often. It’s a little archaic and old-fashioned.
Sometimes, I find myself caught by a word like that. Maybe I’ve never heard it before. Maybe I have, possibly quite often, but never really gave it much thought. Part of it is just the way a certain word feels in my mouth when I say it. There I was, with “irascible”. What did it mean, exactly? Where did it come from? Was its appearance in my little corner of the Universe just one of those things, or was there something to be learned here?
Words are magic. Words are something we humans use to create our world, carving packets of energy out of the universal froth, investing them with meanings and significance, and linking them up in webs and patterns of association and reflection. The magical power in words lies not only in their ability to focus our energy compactly, but also in their inherent fluidity. By changing our words around, we can change our inner perception of the world and thus how we experience it. Perceiver and perceived create each other; change the nature of the perceptions, and the ripple effect flows outward into the world and creates change there, too. Like I said: magic.
Looking into how words come to mean what they do is kind of psychic archaeology. The ways in which a particular word has evolved, adapted, and mutated reveals a lot about people and and how we try to understand the world and ourselves across large swathes of time. Working on “irascible” took me on an interesting little trip; it’s part of a whole constellation of words whose meanings are particularly curious in light of things Feri-esque.
The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, provided the following: “Prone to outbursts of temper, easily angered…” It originally entered Middle English via the Late Latin word “irascibilis”, from “ira-”, meaning “anger”. The root-source is in the Indo-European root “eis”.
All the words in Indo-European languages that grew from this little root have do with passion. As above, Latin got “ira-”, which gave English words like irate, ire, and, of course, irascible.
From a suffixed zero-grade form, *is(e)ro, it shows up in Greek as “hieros”, meaning “powerful, holy”. It denoted a state of being literally “filled up with the Divine.”
In Old High German, we find “isarn/isan”, which migrated into Old English as “isern”, eventually becoming “iren” — iron! Linguists believe that the source of this is a (possibly) Celtic word, *isarno-, meaning “holy metal”. Iron came from thunderstones, bolts of star-stuff that fell to Earth in a blaze of light and fury. Nowadays, we call them meteorites.
Another turn that “eis” took in Greek is a suffixed o-grade form, which replaced the initial “e” with an “o”; this gets us *ois-tro-, or “madness”, and gave English things like estrus and estrogen. Poke into ancient Greek religion a little bit, and you’ll find that the Greeks considered madness to be the touch of the Divine; the direct experience of divine power could be enough to send a person raving into the night, even if only temporarily. Among others, the Maenades, Bacchoi and Delphic Pythia spring to mind.
All this linguistic geekery aside, where does this leave us? Whatever the word’s history, people who call us irascible are not usually referring to how “filled with the holy” we seem! Why are we such grumpy Fae, so “prone to outbursts, easily angered”? What’s up with that?
First of all, anger has a bad reputation which it doesn’t really deserve. To be sure, out of control anger has caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering. That, however, has less to do with anger itself than with how we deal with it. Anger is innate, hardwired into our systems by millions of years of evolution. Anger is a response to having our boundaries, physical or otherwise, violated in some way. We tend to feel anger when someone crosses an important boundary in a way that makes us feel threatened, a way that we feel is an attempt to co-opt or diminish our autonomy as beings. In short, anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.
There is nothing inherently wrong in feeling an anger-response. It’s the sentry that guards our physical and psychic integrity from attack. Healthy anger is never vicious or sadistic. Its energy is tremendously powerful. What makes the difference is what we choose to do with all that energy. Do we use it to strengthen and restore our violated boundaries in a way that is skillful and honorable, a way that reestablishes not only our own integrity, but also that of the person or persons with whom we are dealing? Or do we lash out far beyond our own energetic perimeter in a search-and-destroy mission, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of carnage behind us?
When we are grounded and centered in the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, we are alert to the signals of anger and to what they mean. We can move quickly and surely to restore our boundaries; no more, no less. To people who habitually violate others and steal their energy, this is enormously frustrating. Trying to siphon energy out of a person with strong, healthy boundaries is an exercise in utter futility. More often than not, they may try a little word-magic of their own, and accuse their target of being difficult, touchy, defensive, or just plain ol’ mean. This often works; after all, we don’t want people to think we’re mean, do we? We humans are social animals, with an innate desire to be liked. Our survival depends on being part of a group and “getting along” with the other members. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this can be used against us. How often has the admonishment to “be nice” really translated into “be controllable”?
If you’re working in the Feri Tradition, being seen as “not very nice” isn’t going to keep you up at night. Our teachings place a very strong emphasis on guarding our own life-force. Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself. In the face of that, the opinions of users, crazy-makers, and energy-suckers tend to get short shrift.
When work on the Power Point really kicks in, it’s a tremendous release. We start to see the ways in which our lives have been shaped and molded into something not of our desire, something that our souls barely even recognize. It can be the revelation of a lifetime of having our boundaries violated as a matter of course. Anger is understandable. “Nice” isn’t going to be very high on our list of things to be. Once we begin to see how much of our power we have surrendered, or even had stolen from us outright, getting royally pissed is only natural. After spending so much of our time bound up in fear of isolation and ostracism, of having the life sucked out of us by a tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts”, the experience of severing those energetic bonds can be quite the rush. A period of enjoying this new-found ability is only to be expected. In Alchemy, this phase is called “Separation”, a process of cutting through attachments that don’t contribute anything to our lives. Its correspondences include the color orange-red, the planet Mars, and, interestingly, the metal iron. The individual in Separation is a warrior of heart and spirit, sifting through the layers of their identity, keeping what works and letting go of that which does not. It’s the first place I see most people go when they really begin to grasp the Power Point. It’s cathartic, caustic, and it can be really rough on the other people in our lives, if they have no idea where it’s coming from.
It’s also really easy to get stuck there. The sense of liberation, of lightening the load, is exhilarating and enlivening. So much more juice flowing through our system, so much more energy! It can be highly addictive. It’s also only one phase of the process; if we get hooked on it, it can quickly degenerate into paranoia and simple psychic blood lust. Human history is littered with examples of people who got caught up in this energetic slicing and dicing as an end in and of itself. Having strong, healthy boundaries is good magic. Disemboweling anything that moves is not. Skillfulness in the Power Point is knowing how and when to wield that magic knife.
Feris who live from a position of being grounded and centered in their own inner place of power are always going to seem a bit cantankerous. It’s not a flaw, no matter what the energy-thieves of this world might say about it. Their meat and drink are the doormats of this world; their bane, the people who own and keep their power. So, go ahead. Be irascible, and be proud of it. I know I am.
We are a sex positive tradition, but you must know the heart of the one you approach. No one must ever be approached with force or poor intent.
~ Victor Anderson, 2001
Coercion under any circumstances is morally and ethically wrong. When coercion appears in the sphere of teaching, however, there is a particularly invidious taint that enters the picture. Teaching is, at its heart, a fostering—which often requires challenging the student. It is thus a process which has as its aim to provide a space in which the student can fully realize hir own potential to the finest possible flowering.
In horticulture, gardeners employ techniques of training and “forcing” and other potentially harsh methods. But the human flower does not prosper under such conditions. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says that to follow the path of Self Realization is to walk the razor’s edge; the path of the teacher can be one that requires, every bit as much, a course of conduct as rigorously disciplined. My happiest moments as a teacher have been seeing a student come fully and completely into the recognition of hir own Power; to fully own, and be at ease in, the wielding of hir own Strength, hir own faculty to pursue and embody Wisdom. Coercion can have no place in this.
Tests are needed in the course of time to determine whether a student is ready to continue. Often, the result of such a test is that the teacher must withdraw for a period and allow time to pass and seeds to germinate. Such testing must not be exercised in a coercive manner. It should never be about the teacher’s supposed superiority over the student. It should always be about knowing just when the student is really ready to trod terrain that could otherwise be daunting, frightening, or overwhelming. Perhaps all of that is part of why one of my favorite teachers always described himself as a tourguide. A good guide knows not to lead one into the swamp until one is wearing proper wellies—so to speak.
Witchcraft is a deeply physical discipline. The Faery current is fierce, feral, and unabashedly sexual. It also holds high the values of honor, respect, and what Victor Anderson called “impeccability.” Cora Anderson wrote: The Craft as we know it has a code of honor and sexual morality that is as tough and demanding as the Bushido of Japan and of Shinto, which it strongly resembles and in many important ways is identical to. This code is in no way puritanical, ascetic or anti-sexual. When I teach the Craft, I bear this code of honor rigorously in mind. And all of this is why, when I evaluate a potential student, I look for an individual who has a secure, well-established sense of hir own boundaries and the capacity to learn and maintain habits of good psychic hygiene. If the individual seems too unsteady, unsure of hirself, or just unstable, I will advise hir to go home and work on personal growth and nurture. In such cases, I think it is most inadvisable for a person to engage in magical work that has any goal beyond self-healing and self-care. And again, this is why I always begin by teaching the work of grounding, clearing, and centering: observing a person going through these exercises and checking in with hir immediately afterwards can tell one a great deal about what’s really going on inside, as opposed to the “public version”—how the individual presents hirself to the outside world.
Let us be clear and concise in expressing this foundational principle: teaching and coercion, on any level, don’t go together.
Sometimes I imagine what I would say if one of my children explicitly asked me for training, or intentionally sought it for themselves. They were all exposed to the Craft, as well as general pagan perspectives (and I will continue using the general term ‘pagan’ because I feel it provides a touchstone we can come together on politically and academically). They also engage in witchy activities and hold very pagan beliefs, though they may be in various stages of consciousness on that front.
I think about the heartfelt advice given by one of my early initiators, Juniper. We shared a similar Christian upbringing, and we both had children. Through tears she bravely confessed that if she could go back, knowing what changes and pain lay ahead, she wasn’t sure she would choose this crooked path again. You see, once you put your foot to the path, there is no way but forward – whether to madness or transformation.
Most of my friends who are witches say they always knew they were. That there was never a moment of decision, only one of recognition. It may be that they were outsiders, or just felt themselves different, somehow. This is a critical point to ponder.
If you feel ostracized, if you feel outside the group: take notice whether these feelings make you uncomfortable. If there is a part of your mind seeking validation or the experience of fitting-in – you may want to reconsider this path. Certainly there will be a feeling of kinship, and a relief in having found your own kind, but consider: The Witch lives on the outside of society. Hir path is alone, through a forest darkly. There is no band of brothers who march off to fame and glory together, nor is there cultural acceptance or wide-spread recognition. There may be camaraderie, and you may finally understand your inherent difference, but think long and hard before committing yourself to further differentiation. To be Marked… is for life.
But, if one of my children did ask… even after I ignored them, or tried to put them off (you see, it is a dark path…and I can’t say I would wish it on anyone), the first task I would give them would be to GO OUTSIDE.
Not to glory in airy fairies, or rainbow ponies. I would require they spend a year learning the land: what her seasons are; what her geological history is; what other-than-human persons share the land with them; what the history of her communities are; what weather patterns are dominant; where is the sun in the sky on the longest day; what celestial observations when the season changes; what ARE those seasons there, on that land; what orientation is associated with significant phenomena, whether seasonal, atmospheric, or historical.
I would NOT ask them to leave their locale. This work does not require leaving the city and finding some idyllic country location. The Witch knows the environment he resides in, not one of hir imagining. The Great Powers are everywhere, and everywhere, are different. Know them.
At least I think these would be my first remarks…. if a child of mine saw this path in the forest and reached for the gate.