Review of “Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide”

If you are looking for a clear explanation of lineaged, initiatory witchcraft, this is it. If you are looking for a coven, thinking of joining a coven, or merely curious, I would recommend reading this book. Even if you are an experienced Wiccan initiate, you could benefit from the perspectives offered in this book.

If your coven is open to seekers, this book should go straight to the top of your recommended reading list, for seekers, new initiates, and even old hands. It’s clearly written, engaging, well-structured, and scholarly.

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New book part 2: The Night Journey

The night journey: witchcraft as transformation

Paperback, 364 Pages
Price: £15.99
This book is aimed at witches who want to deepen their engagement with their Craft. It explores modes and types of ritual; how rituals work; the uses of sound and silence in ritual; the witch’s journey through life; the stages and pitfalls of the inner work. It shows how Queer Witchcraft is an inherent aspect of the archetype of the witch; how witchcraft relates to the land; witchcraft as resistance to oppression; working with ancestors; the witch’s pact with spiritual powers; the relationship between madness, shamanism, and witchcraft; and the concept of the night journey, another very old image from the history of witchcraft; how to use insights gained from the practice of witchcraft in everyday life; group dynamics; being a coven leader; teaching and learning in a coven; egregore, lineage, upline, and downline; power and authority; the process of challenging oppression; how to evaluate your Craft; the meaning and purpose of ‘spirituality’, religion, and magic; the archetype of the witch and what it means.
When I was writing Dark Mirror, I didn’t realise until I stitched all the files together that I had written 150,000 words. So I thought the best thing to do would be to split it into two books, and this is the second of the two. Its focus is more on traditional witchcraft, the land, and resistance to oppression. I chose the title partly because a friend commented that she really liked the phrase, partly because the concept was so central to ideas of witchcraft in past centuries, and partly because of its resonance with other esoteric traditions.

Witchcraft Traditions

When Gerald Gardner coined the term “the Wica” (originally spelt with one c), he seems to have intended it to refer to any and all witches. Subsequently, the term has come to be used by some people to mean only witches initiated into Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and has been used by others to mean anybody who identifies as Wiccan, and a whole spectrum of meanings in between those two terms. This can make it confusing for people to understand what is meant by any individual using the term Wicca.

[Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Contains 2020 words]

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New Book Coming Soon!

Dark Mirror – the inner work of witchcraft

And thou who thinkest to seek for me, know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest this mystery: that if that which thou seekest, thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.

― Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess

Inner work is a name commonly given to the inner processes that happen in ritual. However, the best kind of inner work also has an effect outside the individual and outside the circle. When rituals are focused only on self-development, they tend to be a bit too introspective. Ritual is about creating and maintaining relationships and connections – between body, mind, and spirit; with the Earth, Nature, the land, the spirit world, the community, and friends. It is also about creating, maintaining, and restoring balance. It is about making meaning. Telling our stories and reclaiming our history from the oppressors. Weaving a web of symbolism, story, mythology, meaning, community, and love to stand against the ennui and emptiness of relentless consumerism. Creating loosely held but welcoming community, a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity (of body shape, skin colour, physical ability, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, biology, cultural background, age, talkativeness or lack of it, and so on). Creating strong and authentic identity to resist the pressures of consumerism and commercialism and capitalism. Weaving relationship with other beings: humans, animals, birds, spirits, deities.

So the inner work of ritual may be intrapersonal, interpersonal, restorative, or community-building. The kinds of relationships that ritual helps to maintain may be of various different kinds – friendships, erotic relationships (including kinky ones), patron/client relationships. Inner work might be meditation, visualisation, prayer, magic, balancing archetypes within the psyche, lucid dreaming, healing, connecting with the body, or attunement to Nature.

Dark pool, Beanley Moss Beanley Moss is an area of poorly drained conifer plantation where natural depressions have accumulated peat and developed bog vegetation. A few, like this, have formed small bodies of open water. This, and a large surrounding area of heather moorland and associated marshes, has recently been notified for SSSI status by English Nature

Dark pool, Beanley Moss. © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. [CC-BY-SA 2.0]


 

Table of contents

  • Introduction: the inner work

Coming to the circle

  1. The Pagan worldview
  2. Creating sacred space
  3. Raising energy – synergy, resonance and polarity
  4. Magical names
  5. Archetypes and the inner work
  6. The Mysteries
  7. Evocation and Invocation
  8. Use of symbols in ritual
  9. Spell work
  10. Magical tools

Embodied Spirituality

  1. Relationships and Consent in Wicca
  2. “Ye shall be naked in your rites”
  3. The erotic and spirituality
  4. Inner aspects of the festivals
  5. Grounding and centering
  6. Making an altar
  7. The Hearth
  8. Food in ritual
  9. Labyrinths; Meditative walking; Pilgrimage
  10. Gardening
  11. Spirits of the land
  12. Meditation, Visualisation, Contemplation
  13. Poetry, Storytelling, and Reading
  14. Cultivating the virtues

Between the worlds

  1. Modes and types of ritual
  2. Sound and silence
  3. The Moon
  4. The witch’s journey
  5. Queer Witchcraft
  6. Witchcraft and the land
  7. Witchcraft as resistance
  8. Working with ancestors
  9. The Pact – relational polytheism
  10. Madness, shamanism, witchcraft
  11. The night journey

Bringing it all back home

  1. Inclusive Wicca
  2. Group dynamics
  3. Being a coven leader
  4. Teaching and learning in a coven
  5. Egregore, lineage, upline, downline
  6. Power and authority
  7. Rites of passage
  8. Challenging oppression
  9. Evaluating your Craft
  10. Brimful of Asha

Appendices

  • Model guidelines for group discussion
  • Coming-out ritual
  • Recommended reading

Fraud, and why it matters

What is a fraud?

In the context of witchcraft, it is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others about the origins and nature of their tradition, or claims that they were initiated by a genuine practitioner of a tradition, but they weren’t. In other words, they lie about their origins to make themselves seem more authentic.

Examples include claims that a tradition calling itself Wicca, or possessing a Gardnerian book of shadows, is older than Gardner, or used the word Wicca before Gardner; these should be treated with extreme caution. (There are witchcraft traditions that are pre-Gardner, but they mostly don’t call themselves Wicca.) Claims that a tradition has an unbroken initiatory lineage back to ancient pagan times are also fraudulent. Claims to an unbroken initiatory lineage stretching back any earlier than 1900 should also be treated with extreme caution.

Why does this matter?

If you are going to trust someone enough to engage in transformative and powerful ritual with them, you want to be able to take them at their word. You want to be sure that they know what they are doing, that they have been taught a tried and trusted set of techniques, and that you are not going to be asked to do something that is massively outside your comfort zone.

If someone lies about something as simple as where they got their initiation from, or the origins of their tradition, how can you trust their word about anything else?

It has been observed that fraudulent claims about origins, and fraudulent claims of initiation, are often accompanied by abusive behaviour. I don’t think an implausible origin story should automatically be seen as a sign of potential abuse, unless it is accompanied by other warning signs of abusive behaviour.

It is advisable to seek external confirmation that someone’s story (either about their initiation, or about the origins of their tradition) is true. Get a vouch from other Wiccans.

In a previous article, I mentioned that the Frosts were never part of Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. Indeed, they never claimed to be. However, Gavin Frost did claim to have invented the word Wicca before Gardner did, and the Frosts claimed to be running “the oldest Wiccan school in the universe” (if you don’t believe me, look at their blog, it is right there in the header).

What is not fraudulent?

Any tradition or group that does not lie about its origins is not fraudulent.

A tradition that cannot trace its initiatory lineage to Gardner or Sanders, but doesn’t claim to, is not fraudulent. There are many Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, particularly in North America, that do not claim lineage back to Gardner or Sanders, but do call themselves Wicca. That is definitely not fraudulent. Wicca is a useful term for ‘softening’ the word witchcraft in areas where fundamentalism is rife. It is not fraudulent to call yourself a Wiccan if you don’t have a Gardnerian or Alexandrian lineage – as long as you don’t lie about your origins, lineage, or initiations.

Some Gardnerians and Alexandrians object to anything outside their traditions being known as Wicca. That is a different argument, and should not be confused with fraudulent origin stories.

A person who has been lied to by their initiators, but believed the story, and repeats in in good faith, believing it to be true, is not fraudulent. A bit gullible perhaps, but not deliberately lying about their origins.

A tradition that possesses a Gardnerian book of shadows, and thereby believes itself to be Gardnerian, but doesn’t have a lineage back to Gardner, and doesn’t claim to – not fraudulent; not actually Gardnerian by the standard definition of the term Gardnerian, either; but not actually fraudulent, because it is not lying about its origins.

Witchcraft traditions that are not fraudulent include (but are not limited to) Reclaiming witchcraft, Feri witchcraft, Bread and Roses, 1734 witchcraft, Clan of Tubal Cain witchcraft, Central Valley Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Wiccan Church of Canada, Blue Star Wicca, Mohsian Wicca, Kingstone Wicca, Algard Wicca, to cite some well-known examples. None of these traditions claim to be much older than Gardnerian Wicca; they have clearly traceable origin stories, and don’t claim a lineage that doesn’t exist.

There are clearly some traditions of folk witchcraft that do pre-date Gerald Gardner, but not by more than fifty years, as far as I am aware. Claims of origins back in the mists of time should be treated with extreme caution.

Some groups are not entirely sure of their early history. In these cases, an honest answer to a question about origins would be, “We don’t really know for certain, but to the best of our knowledge and belief, what happened was this…” If new evidence comes to light which refutes the origin story, the members of the tradition accept the new historical information. For example, if contemporary Alexandrians and Gardnerians discover that Sanders or Gardner made something up, we admit it, and don’t seek to cover it up.

Once Ronald Hutton had traced the historical origins of Wicca (in The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft), the vast majority of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans accepted the new information and stopped claiming older origins for Wicca. Subsequent research by Philip Heselton has shown that Gardner’s story that he was initiated into an existing coven was true (and they sincerely believed themselves to be reincarnations of nineteenth century witches). I believe that Gardner sincerely believed he had stumbled upon something really old, whose fragmentary nature he sought to supplement based on his reading of Margaret Murray’s work and The Key of Solomon.

Conclusion

A fraud is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others. If you can’t trust their word, it would be inadvisable to trust them about anything else.

But What About The Tradition?

Every time I mention polarity and inclusive Wicca, someone at the back is sure to say, with irritating regularity, “But what about the tradition?” There is also a tendency to assume that polarity must always be made by a man and a woman, and that that is the default option for making polarity. It has got to the point where other forms of making magic don’t seem to be considered in some circles.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, and as my friend Alder Lyncurium points out in this excellent article on polarity, there is much more to polarity than the interaction of a male body and a female body:

Polarity is, in essence, a constant interaction between more than one force or element. It is the movement, the striving of those forces, and the rhythm in it, that creates the dynamism. As occultists, witches or magicians we observe the underlying patterns of that rhythm, get insights and tap into it, or try to emulate it — either conscious or unconsciously.

There is also resonance (named by Ed Gutierrez of the Unnamed Path), the ability of two people who have a strong similarity between them to make magic together. It is rather like sympathetic magic.

And then there is synergy, the ability of several people to create magical energy together by bringing their energy together, and making something that is more than the sum of its parts.

But if you want to talk about tradition – which is, in any case, a constantly evolving and developing discourse – then let’s talk about tradition. If you want your Paganism (whether it is Heathenry, or Wicca, or Druidry, or any other Pagan religion) to be really traditional, really connected to ancient pagan religions, then it should not just include LGBTQIA people as some kind of afterthought or bolted-on concession to contemporary “liberal” sensibilities.

On the contrary: truly traditional Pagans should regard LGBTQIA people as an integral part of society. There should be rituals for same-sex partners. Lesbian poets should be celebrated and their songs recorded for posterity. Gay lovers such as Hadrian and Antinous, or Patroclus and Achilles, or Pausanias of Athens and the poet Agathon, should be widely celebrated for their heroic love. Transgender deities such as Loki and Vertumnus should be celebrated for their changes of gender. Humans such as Tiresias should be celebrated for their exploration of the other gender.

The Pagan revival

Many of the Pagan pioneers of the early 20th century, especially Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, were gay, and their enthusiasm for Paganism was partly informed by the knowledge that ancient pagans were gay-friendly. A friend of mine who has studied the period informs me that, similarly, early 20th century bisexual and lesbian women such as Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were inspired by the example of Sappho. And Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of Lolly Willowes (whose heroine is an unmarried woman who becomes a witch) was both a Nature mystic and bisexual, as explored by Rebecca Beattie in her excellent book Nature Mystics. The first civil rights group for lesbians in the USA was the Daughters of Bilitis, named for a fictional contemporary of Sappho.

It is not clear to me exactly when or how homophobia became such a huge part of Western culture.  Many people would like to blame the Bible, but that book is surprisingly ambivalent about same-sex love. The love of David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Jesus and the beloved disciple John, are all praised; it is actually fornication (sex without love) that seems to be condemned. Later Christians would of course take a dim view of all pleasures of the flesh, but that seems to have been part of a general turn against the body in Western culture that occurred around 500 CE. Looking at the timeline of LGBT history in Britain, it was not until 1102 that the church took steps to make people aware that homosexuality was sinful; and anal sex was not made illegal until 1533.

Ancient pagan religions’ views of homosexuality

Looking back to ancient pagan religions, most of them were tolerant of gender and sexual diversity, but regarded the passive role in sexual intercourse (whether that role was occupied by a woman or a man) as lesser. Both the ancient Greeks and the Vikings took this view. However, it is not clear whether this view was introduced to Viking society along with Christianity, or whether they felt that way before the introduction of Christianity. Viking Answer Lady has a very comprehensive article on the subject, and it appears that the Vikings were very scathing on the subject of men who were on the receiving end of anal sex; but on the other hand, Oðinn was frequently called ergi, a term which meant a variety of things including effeminate, passive, and irritable. Practitioners of seiðr were regarded as ergi. As many Viking men had female concubines, it was quite likely that some of them had same-sex relationships (as has been found in other cultures with concubinage). There were also male prostitutes, and priests of Frey who danced with bells and were regarded as ‘effeminate’ by the Christians. It is also worth noting that all the sagas and tales were written down 200-300 years after the heyday of pagan Viking society, and were written down by Christians who were hostile to homosexuality.  It seems likely that there were ritualised roles for gender-variant and homosexual people (as is the case in many ancient cultures), and whilst the Vikings may have found ergi men uncanny, there was a role for them as priests of Frey and Freyja.

As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were much more positive about same-sex love, and extolled its pleasures and virtues in many texts. Again, the active role was regarded as ‘manly’ and the passive role as ‘unmanly’, but same-sex love was not condemned. There were gender-variant deities (Hermaphrodite), deities who engaged in same-sex love (Zeus and Ganymede being the most well-known example). Again, it was complicated. Ancient pagans were not all sweetness and light in their attitudes to same-sex love, but there were many positive examples of it in ancient pagan mythology, and it was not universally condemned.

By David Liam Moran - Own work. Image renamed from Image:Ganymede serving Zeus.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2847602

Photo by David Liam Moran – Own work. Ganymede serving Zeus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Numerous LGBT Pagan traditions draw their inspiration from ancient examples: the Minoan Brotherhood, the Modern Gallae, the Temple of Antinous, the Ekklesia Antinoou, and so on. Inclusive Wiccans, whilst not a distinct tradition, and not harking back to any particular ancient example, like to point out that gender-variant and queer magical practitioners have been known in just about every culture, and that “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”, and any pair of opposites can make polarity. Given that Wicca was only developed in the 1950s, and has grown and changed since then, there is no excuse for claiming male/female polarity as some immutable tradition. The idea that only a man and a woman can make polarity is merely a heterocentric assumption rooted in Victorian notions of gender. The Minoan culture of Crete, which inspired both Gerald Gardner and Eddie Buczynski, certainly included same-sex love.

Conclusion: it’s complicated

What all of this shows is that attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance are complicated and varied in all societies, and that how they are viewed by others, and how they are represented symbolically and managed through ritual, has varied over time. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that so-called traditional Christian attitudes to homosexuality and gender variance can just be lifted across into Paganism and assumed to be traditional. How Christians have viewed same-sex love has also varied from one region to another, and from one historical era to another.

So, if you are harking back to some ancient pagan view of the world, and want to adhere to ancient pagan values with regard to LGBTQIA people, it was a mixed picture, and there was no single view (just as there has never been a single view of this or any other issue).  The ancient pagan world had rituals and roles for LGBTQIA people, and often regarded them as sacred, and therefore a bit uncanny and weird. Hence the eunuch priests of Cybele, the Galli, and the ergi men devoted to Frey and Freyja. But there is no justification in ancient texts for the kind of virulent homophobia found among some right-wing so-called Pagans.

This leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating though ancient views of sexuality are, we live in our own context and culture, and have to make up our own minds. But perhaps we can recover something of the sacredness of gender-variant and homosexual magic by looking at the myths, legends, and practices of the ancient world.

Embodied Spirituality: Magical Tools

The other day, I saw a meme which said that you don’t need magical tools, initiation, or a Book of Shadows to be a Wiccan. Well, maybe you don’t need these things, but they are what people think of when they think of Wicca. They are among the things that get you recognised as being part of the Wiccan community, because they are symbols and experiences and ideas that we all share. They are also useful. You don’t need a knife and fork to eat your dinner, but it makes it a lot easier. You don’t need an address book to write your friends’ addresses in – but it makes it a lot easier to remember where they live and post them Yule cards.  And you don’t need a rite of passage to help you feel like an adult – but it makes it easier if a definite transition has been marked.

I would like there to be as broad an interpretation of the term “Wiccan” as possible, and an even broader interpretation of the term “witch”, because that is how they were originally intended to be used (the term Wiccan was not coined exclusively for the use of Gardnerian Wiccans, or even Alexandrian plus Gardnerian – it was intended to refer to all witches, as Ethan Doyle White has shown from his historical research). I am  okay with people identifying as Wiccan without initiation – but if you want to be part of the initiatory Wiccan community, or another initiatory community such as Feri, then you need initiation. Initiation is a powerful transformational ritual.

The purpose of a Book of Shadows is not to prescribe how you should do your rituals, but to record powerful rituals that you have done, and to transmit powerful rituals written by past Wiccans. Each witch’s book should be unique to them, although it will also contain the rituals that have been passed down to them. A Book of Shadows is a magical tool for recording and transmitting good rituals.

What about tools such as wands, athames, swords, chalices, and so on? There are several reasons why they are helpful. I do think that a good witch should be able to do a spell or ritual without any tools in an emergency – but I still use tools when they are available.

By Fer Doirich - Own work, CC0

Wiccan Altar, by Fer DoirichOwn work, CC0.

Humans are tool-using animals. One of the things that helps us to think and solve problems is our tool-using propensities. Look at other animals who use tools. We tend to think they are cleverer than animals who don’t use tools, because they can manipulate more of their environment.

According to Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology:

The last decade has witnessed remarkable discoveries and advances in our understanding of the tool using behaviour of animals. Wild populations of capuchin monkeys have been observed to crack open nuts with stone tools, similar to the skills of chimpanzees and humans. Corvids have been observed to use and make tools that rival in complexity the behaviours exhibited by the great apes. Excavations of the nut cracking sites of chimpanzees have been dated to around 4-5 thousand years ago.

Think about how we use physical tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, brooms, milk-frothers, egg-stiffeners, paint-stirrers, and so on, and how difficult life would be without those tools. Think about how chimpanzees have been seen getting ants out of ant-hills with a straw, or cracking nuts open with a rock. Frequently, tool use involves remembering that you saw a useful-looking rock, or a hollow blade of grass, going to fetch it, and bringing it to where the food is. So tool use involves the use of cognitive skills such as memory, comparison, and visualisation.

My partner Bob pointed out that it is much is easier to do a task (magical or mundane) without a tool when you have learnt to do it with a tool.

Tools are levers for affecting the world. You can’t tighten a screw without a screwdriver. You need a wooden spoon to stir a pan of soup or stew, otherwise you would burn your fingers.  You can cast a magical circle without a sword or a wand – but it feels like a better and more magical circle when it has been cast with the appropriate tool. The subtle energies involved in magic are affected by physical tools in much the same way as denser matter is affected by tools.

Magic is not all in the mind – the body is part of it too. The people who claim you don’t need tools also tend to claim that doing magic is a purely mental process. The conceptual separation of mind and body, spirit and matter, is a Western phenomenon which has been a disaster for our civilisation in so many ways, involving the denigration of sexuality and sensuality, the denial of the pleasures of the flesh, a dysfunctional relationship with food, and behaving as if the Earth, the other animals, birds, and plants with whom we share it are expendable. Using magical tools helps to remind us that magic is an embodied spirituality, and to involve our bodies in the process of creating magical energy. Indeed, some of the tools used in Wicca have specific uses for enhancing the sense of being in the body.

Tools are powerful symbols. Much of magic and ritual is about engaging with and awakening the poetic and symbolic aspects of the mind (the “right-brain” functions). The use of tools as symbols speaks to these aspects of the mind (sometimes referred to as “Younger Self”). Tools are part of a complex set of magical associations involving directions, elements, planets, deities, trees, and so on, all of which speak to the poetic, mystical, and symbolic side of our natures. They are part of a poetic language of witchcraft.  The process of getting into the twilight consciousness required for ritual is assisted and enhanced by the use of familiar words, tools, imagery, and physical movements, evoking muscle memory and awareness of space.

So, maybe you don’t need tools, but why would you want to do without them?

Witchcraft: the Middle Way

Over at AndersonFaery.org, Helix has written an excellent and fascinating article about the old way of being a witch and the new way of being a witch. I think it is a useful model to explain why there is conflict over many aspects of the Craft – how to teach it, who can benefit from it, and how witches should engage with the world. The “old way” and the “new way” that Helix describes are two poles at either end of a spectrum. I would say that very few people are purely “new way” or purely “old way”. For example, I started my Craft journey with a lot of the assumptions of the “new way”, but I am a member of a tradition that is in many respects “old way” and so my practice is a synthesis of the two. Nor do I think it is necessarily the case, as Helix says, that you must be either “old way” or “new way”. She writes:

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.

The two ways are already all mixed up in modern witchcraft traditions. Doesn’t that mean that a synthesis already exists, then? Which means that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but can follow the Middle Way. I suspect that a lot of what I am about to say will make more sense if you read Helix’s article first, but it might work as a standalone piece. It’s up to you.

Coast path near Bindon Cliffs The path (Axmouth Footpath 2) spends most of its time along this coast in woodland which has grown up on the jumble of broken land. A mysterious touch is added here by the luxuriant growth of harts-tongue fern and ivy below hazel trees. Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved] © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Coast path near Bindon Cliffs
The path (Axmouth Footpath 2) spends most of its time along this coast in woodland which has grown up on the jumble of broken land. A mysterious touch is added here by the luxuriant growth of harts-tongue fern and ivy below hazel trees.
 © Copyright Derek Harper and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The “old way” and the “new way”

Very broadly, Helix characterises the Old Way as embedded in community and locality, and being about relationships  with the land and one’s local community. It takes the view that politics (of the pressure-group and parliamentary kind) is ephemeral and transitory, and that everything is cyclical, and that we have seen all this before. It does not teach in large groups for money, because teaching is about relationship. It also takes the view that not everyone is called to be a witch, or has the necessary skills, aptitudes, and inclinations.

The New Way, on the other hand, while it acknowledges the cyclical nature of reality, says that we are at a crisis point and need to be politically engaged in order to transform the world. To this end, we need to train as many people as possible in the techniques of witchcraft, in order to bring about that transformation. It regards teaching in large groups as necessary in order to spread the message, and money as a means of energy exchange.

Helix has a great list of the differences between the two, which is well worth a read. I found myself agreeing with some of both approaches, though, which is why I think there is value in both ways, and that a synthesis or middle way is possible. In fact, Helix says as much:

“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.

A “middle way”

The most famous usage of the term “Middle Way” is of course the Middle Way in Buddhism. The story goes that the Buddha first tried ascetic practices to reach enlightenment, and ended up very emaciated as a result. Then he tried hedonism as a way to enlightenment, and found that didn’t work either. So then he invented the Middle Way – moderation in all things. The middle way between the two positions articulated by Helix will be different from Middle Way Buddhism, of course, because it is not a middle way between asceticism and hedonism, but a middle way between two different poles, which we might characterise as local and global, or maybe even religion and spirituality, or embedded and networked.

Because the “old way” and the “new way” are complex and cohesive worldviews, it is difficult to come up with a shorthand term to describe them. I will try to articulate my suggested middle way by using the same headings as Helix, for ease of comparison.

Time and Justice

In the “middle way”, witches are aware that time is cyclical, but also that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King, paraphrasing Theodore Parker).  We know that there is an ecological crisis, but feel that there is still hope of change. We know that capitalism sucks, but we also feel that there was a time in the past when it didn’t exist, and there will be a time in the future when it will become obsolete. Rather than our focus being entirely local or entirely global, we are aware of the interconnectedness of the global and the local, and that the one is a reflection of the other. “As above, so below.” The apocalypse is not at hand, but it isn’t business-as-usual either. So, in the manner of Odin at the Well of Mimir, we need one eye on the outer world, and one on the inner world. The role of the witch is to straddle the hedge, the liminal place, between inner and outer, light and dark, global and local, community and solitude.

Self, Community, and Training

In the “old way”, training appears to have been largely one-on-one. Trad Craft groups seem to envisage a witch training only one successor. In the “new way”, teaching is mostly in large groups, and can be done by distance learning. Surely the middle way (which, thankfully, already exists) is the coven? In a coven, you get the sense of community and individuality, and the intimacy of a small group. You get the individual development by having your corners rubbed off by the group, and avoid the lack of feedback that you would get in solitary practice and large impersonal classroom settings. You might also be aware of a network of other covens who have similar intimate training settings. It is not your duty to train everyone who asks you for training; but it probably is your duty to train those who have an aptitude, who will benefit from your training, and who will put in the commitment to the work. Luckily, when you get students who fulfil those criteria, this duty is actually a pleasure, and something that the teacher will also benefit from (which is why we never charge for coven training).

Secrecy and Silence

The middle way distinguishes between secrecy, confidentiality, privacy, and the mysteries.

Secrecy is necessary to protect the mysteries from the profane, and to protect the inexperienced from confronting the powerful nature of the mysteries without proper preparation. It should never be used to be excluding, or to assert power and privilege over others. Confidentiality is important for several reasons: because the Craft is so misunderstood by outsiders that we need to protect ourselves; because if someone confides something private to you, it is just that, private.

As KNicoll commented on a book review:

If you invited someone who worked as a food columnist over for family dinner, do you expect to hear about a article afterwards that reveals the menu, criticises what people were wearing, reveals intimate details about people’s lives from the before-dinner discussions, and includes the addresses of some of the guests? Of course not!

Not only are the details of someone’s personal life private, but also certain aspects of our rituals, which are unique and special to a particular covens, and only get shared with people we love and trust.

The mysteries are so experiential and often non-verbal that it’s almost impossible to explain them to someone else; you just have to experience them. The only possible response to the mysteries is silence. They are that which (literally) cannot be spoken, cannot be communicated, only experienced directly or not at all. And the secrecy that is hedged about our rituals is to prevent the unwary and inexperienced from stumbling across the mysteries and being hurt by the encounter.

Money

In the “middle way”, you do not pay for coven training, but you might pay for classes and workshops where there is no ongoing relationship. The middle way distinguishes between the coven setting and other contexts. The coven setting is a tribal setting, where no-one counts the cost of what they do, everyone just does their best and knows that “what goes around comes around”. The wider community is more like a village, where we barter our skills for other people’s skills. And a large event or conference is like a city, where there is little or no ongoing relationship, so we trade our skills and knowledge for money. The middle way witch is quite happy to write a book, but will emphasise that book-learning must be complemented by coven learning, where you can have the experiential learning that is necessary for a full understanding of the Craft. The middle way witch tries to synthesise left-brain and right-brain approaches. “Middle way” witches likes to keep their feet on the ground by having a regular job, but also engage with wider issues, and might have a blog or write books, where they explain some of the techniques of witchcraft, and provide a means of entry to the Pagan worldview, ethos, and values.

Purpose

The purpose of witchcraft in the middle way is both individual development and community cohesion, and a recognition that you can’t have one without the other. The middle way witch recognises that the state of the world is not ideal, but also doesn’t think that the apocalypse is at hand, and hopes that the crisis can be averted by peaceful means. Middle way witches recognise that we are in relationship with all beings, and therefore wish to avoid violent revolution. If this all sounds hopelessly bourgeois, I am sorry, but transformation can be peaceful and yet still powerful. Look at the non-violent overthrow of many totalitarian systems, and the massive sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality that has happened in a generation – in my lifetime, in fact.

Where next?

As Helix rightly points out, the  “old way” and the “new way” are primarily tools for thought – but they are also cohesive models which people do largely follow. I have noticed people who lean towards one or other of these poles regarding each other with complete mutual bafflement. However, I do think there is value and wisdom in both approaches, which is why I have tried to provide a synthesis, or third way, or middle way, between the two. We can’t afford not to engage with the current ecological crisis; but on the other hand, we don’t want to lose the ethos and values of the “old way”, which are part of the solution to the problems we face. Therefore, I would encourage people to read Helix’s article, look at the suggestions for a middle way that I have offered, and ponder where your own practice and values sit on the spectrum between the poles.

As the Queen of Elfland said to Thomas the Rhymer:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires. ‘

And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven. ‘

And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

There is always a middle way, though it is increasingly becoming a “road less travelled”.