Wednesday, July 31, 2013

P is for Proper Person


What is a "proper person"? Is it a person who has manners and doesn't burp in public?  Is it someone who is richer, more psychic, more powerful or academically accomplished?  I don't think these have anything to do with the idea of proper personhood in Wicca. 

Just so we are al aware, the term "proper person" does not belong solely to Wicca. As a matter of fact, we see the term used in English, Scottish, Australian and New Zealander law jargon in a number of ways from legislation to maritime regulations.  In these cases, we often see the phrase as "fit and proper" and it can refer to people, states of readiness and repair, and a number of other things.  There is even a test which determines how well one adheres to the accepted definition of the term which is can be administered to applicants to various jobs.  The Masons also use the term Proper Person to indicate someone who is well suited to an office or job.

I believe that Wicca may have adopted the term Proper Person from the Masons as it uses the term in a similar way to indicate a person who is well suited for initiation. There is another layer to a proper person in Wicca, however, which is often felt rather than empirically determined.  Consider for a moment the following definitions of the term proper from the Webster's Dictionary:

b : belonging to one : own 
2 : belonging characteristically to a species or individual : peculiar

These definitions would refer to the word proper in its use as the root of the word property; that which is peculiar to or belongs to, or is owned by someone or something. It is not that the Wica believe that proper people are those who are literally owned by someone or some group, but that they belong to the Craft in general and to a specific tradition or practice in particular.  Gerald Gardner recounted the tale of his meeting his initiators and their belief that he had been a member of the witch cult in another life.  They said that since he belonged to them in the past, that he should return to them and join them once again.  This is a belief that is still widely held in the traditional Wiccan community today. It is an explanation of the feeling of kinship which is sometimes felt upon meeting a potential student.  It speaks to the feeling of having known someone very well in the past even though you have never met them.

Wicca is concerned with the common usage of the word proper.  We do want to be sure we are initiating and training the people who are going to be good for our groups and traditions.  We want to maintain our own status as proper people by keeping our oaths, stewarding our traditions with care, and by working to recognize those who the gods put in our path which are proper to the Wica and assist them (when they ask) to return to the practice. Have a look a the story which appears in the back several editions of Gardner's Meaning of Witchcraft.  You will find evidence of what I have spoken of here.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

O is for Oathbound Traditions


At first I was reluctant to choose this topic because I didn't know what exactly to say.  Oathbound Tradtitions - well, they are traditions which contain oaths. Ok, now who cares?

When I mention that I am oathbound, I get a variety of responses. Some roll their eyes and assume that I feel that this somehow places me above them.  Others dismiss me entirely as one of those Wiccans who "just don't understand the need for Wicca to grow and change."  After all, if it doesn't, it will die out, right?  Still others make a judgment about the value I place on my freedom, that somehow I am involved with an oppressive hierarchy or guru worship. Poor me, right?  I have actually heard these views expressed in open discussion at meet ups and Pagan festivals. They are not targeting me specifically, but these statements are made with a matter-of-fact demeanor that assumes this to be common knowledge about the nature of oathbound traditions.  My area is not full of traditionalists, so I am a minority, and I listen in relative silence. My area is more heavily populated by those identifying as Heathens and Asatru (I am not familiar enough with these practices and groups to accurately distinguish between the two, so I will not try), non-initiatory witches of various stripes, Neo-Wiccans, and a small but involved Druid population.  There are probably others, but they are either not involved initiatory traditions or they are do not publicly identify as such.

So let's address some of these assumptions and see where we end up, shall we?  Keep in mind that I cannot, and do not, speak for all those within oathbound traditions. 

Does an oathbound individual feel that they are superior or "above" others who are not?  

I don't.  I do see my practice as different, however.  Not in a way that implies better, but in that there are limits and obligations placed on my behavior.  I have seen grimoires and books of shadows, both personal and from groups, which are published online.  I have seen the contents of such printed and handed out at public rituals. Those not bound by oaths are free to do so, as they have never promised not to, and in many cases the work that they publish is their own or taken from published sources.  I am obligated by my oaths to keep private the traditions and lore which was passed to me.  I am obligated to be mindful to ask about the status of the materials passed to me.  Even if that material may come from outside of my own tradition, it is appropriate to ask.  It has to do with respect and with the sanctity of trust which is due to the giver. If I find something published in a book which I know is part of an oathbound tradition, I can simply refer to the published material, making no mention of any oathbound lore which might accompany it, and leave it at that. 

When traditionalists swear an oath, we swear it before our gods and our kin. If we violate that trust we show ourselves unworthy of further trust.  The work of our groups requires trust. Letting our covenmates into some of the most private and vulnerable parts of ourselves, we share a level of intimacy which is necessary for personal and magical growth.  The magic which is generated from these relationships takes the shape of the "Perfect Love and Perfect Trust" which is often spoken of and sometimes misdefined.  Our oaths ase also designed to respect the privacy of our brethren, and we would find it in violation of our oaths to "out" another.  We do not share what goes on within the rites of our traditions with outsiders.  Different initiates of the same tradition may have varying degrees of expected privacy which is determined by the group in which they are involved.  For example, coven A may consider all activities of their group to fall under oath, and coven B may only consider the names of their covenmates, the contents of their BOS and the names of their gods to be oathbound.  Usually there is a baseline which is common to the tradition, and groups and individuals within that tradition add to that baseline by choice and based on need. 

So, do we feel superior yet?  As Pagans, it's my hope that we understand the value of our words and behaviors. When we make a formal vow, it should mean something, right?

Does Wicca "need to change"?

I say no.  Do solitary witches need to join covens? No. Most who assert that Wicca will die out without a change in its demand for initiation, secrecy and custom do so out of a need to fulfill their own agenda.  They often want these changes to suit what they want Wicca to be.  They use words like evolution to illustrate how much better Wicca would be if it were to change.  They fail to note that evolution is the discussion of mutation.  A majority of mutation ends in extinction.  True evolution is a slow movement toward either betterment or extinction which happens naturally and not by choice.   With all this call for Wicca to change, a less popular voice which states that if Wicca should lose its customs that it will cease to be Wicca goes unheard.  If the gods of the Wica want change, they will ask for it.  If the practice is fated to disappear, the Gods will cease to call people to it.  Ultimately, its not up to us.  

Does an oath set up a dynamic for a guru to emerge and create a system that limits freewill?

Actually, my experience is quite the opposite.  I was only half joking when i said we witches are rebels. We are in many ways. Traditions like lineage, initiation and ritualized secrecy create several safeguards for seekers.  An initiatory lineage provides an upline which can vouch for the character of those leading covens and can confirm weather a certain practice is in fact traditional to that line.  This helps the initiate distinguish between an HPS or HP's opinion and traditional practice. They are then able to vote with their feet and leave situations where power over, instead of power with, dynamics are the norm. The upline is also kept in check through a system of autonomy which is afforded to covens which meet various criteria which is determined by the tradition.  Though autonomous, covens are accountable to the tradition in that they may be determined by their brethren to no longer be operating within traditional guidelines and that information can be related to anyone who asks. This is not the way that dangerous cults or gurus operate. In fact, all the safeguards mentioned above allow individuals freedom of choice and information which is often only afforded large religious bodies.  It should also be noted that Wicca is not the only practice which embraces these types of mechanisms.  Wicca probably inherited these practices from the Masons, and they have suffered the same slings and arrows over the years. 

None of us may change the behavior of another, but we can be in control of ourselves.  An oath to keep silent about certain things is an effective way to begin asserting control over our own actions.   Controlling our own actions is the first step in training and strengthening our Will.  This is necessary to the creation of magic.  We live in a world where access to information is at our fingertips 24/7.  May the Gods bless search engines for this!  On the other hand, there is power in silence.  It not only is a reflection of the notion that power shared is power lost, but it also reinforces in the individual the power to choose. This power to choose to keep one's promises in spite of outside pressures or ridicule is an ultimate expression of individual freedom.  I am reminded of Giles Corey who was arrested on charges of Witchcraft in Salem in 1692.  He refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.  To force him to break his silence on the matter, he was subjected pressing, which involved being stripped naked with a board laid on top of him.  Then rocks or boulders were piled upon the board in order to cause extreme pain and force him to enter a plea.  Giles died rather than break his silence, and while there is no proof that he did so to uphold an oath, it speaks to a strength of character that I greatly admire. 


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

O is for OMG and "oh no she didn't"

In general, Pagans are an independent lot.  We don't take kindly to rules and restrictions unless they are our rules and restrictions.  Many of us came from religious backgrounds which were full of rules and "approved beliefs and practices" which separated us (sacred) from them (profane).  This happens culturally as well.  Often you will find that when traveling to other countries, that dishes with the same name will be prepared vastly different. An example of this is mole in Mexico. When asked, locals will claim that their version of the mole is the real one, and that the dish of the village on the other side of the valley is "not real mole".  This claiming of true authenticity might be charming when it comes to national cuisine, but when it comes to issues if identity and religious beliefs things get more heated. 

All belief systems and labels of identity are designed to define.  Webster's dictionary says that to define is -"to discover and set forth the meaning of", "to set apart" or "to fix and mark the limits of; demarcate".  In other words, to state what something is and what something is not.  We define a dog to distinguish it from a cat or other four legged mammals.   We define CPR to set it apart from assault.  You might laugh, but both can result in broken ribs.  Imagine having no distinction between the two!  I think categorizing is a natural human activity which touches a number of levels of human experience.  As social animals it is important in the creation of groups (be they nations, tribes, families, religions etc), and the creation of personal identities.  When we define beliefs, we take on labels as badges of those beliefs and make a statement about who we are and who we are not.  This is often problematic because there is a good possibility that others may use that label and believe it to mean something different. 

When attempting to define a large category label like "Pagan" which encompasses a vast number of traditions, practices, and belief systems we set ourselves up for conflict. Of late in the Pagan blogosphere, there have been a number of arguments surrounding theist vs non-theist or secular Pagans.  When the term Pagan is used, which is a very broad term, we must remember that we are describing a wide variety of practices. There is no doubt that the practices of and the beliefs of Heathens, Asatru, Wiccans and Druids will differ, but they are all Pagan traditions.  Even Within one tradition there will be variation.  These variations will require discussion and attention within those communities to determine whether or not such variations are significant enough make them other.  Notice that I did not say "wrong"?  To debate whether one can be an atheist Pagan who sees the gods as metaphors is an exercise in futility. The term Pagan is just too broad.  Even the terms witch and magician do not contain enough specifics on which to base a conversation of this type.  Within a smaller, more well defined community, such as a tradition of Wicca, the number of participants is smaller and there may be hope for a definition.  Maybe.  With the use of sedatives. 

Some shy away from labels in order to avoid conflict. To this I say, "hogwash".  To do away with labels is to say that we are all the same which is categorically untrue.  As a traditional Wiccan I am no more the same as a Hellenic Recon than I am a turtle.  Instead, I submit that we should shy away from running our mouths and remember our manners.  Definitions and labels do not have to imply better/worse, right/wrong dichotomies.  Instead they can be points of learning for all those involved in the conversation and a celebration of the diversity of Paganism.  Let those that claim more specific labels argue for them (gods know there is enough to argue) and understand that Pagans come in all shapes, sizes and stripes. 

And if someone tells you how you should define your Pagan path before you are ready to take on a more specific label, just say, "OMG, oh no you didn't" and walk away.  The surprise factor will surely shock them into silence. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

N is for New Age

So I was looking around the Pagan Blogosphere and came across the Pagan Blog Project.  (wow, my autocorrect can tell when I am typing "blogosphere" but it turns honey into homie)  A very interesting idea.  We seem to be on week 28, so clearly I have missed a few weeks.  No matter. This week's letter is N, so I chose the New Age as my topic.

When I was seeking in the Craft, there was a distinct difference between the New Age and Witchcraft/Wicca.  If I walked into a New Age store sporting a pentagram I would immediately be placed under scrutiny.  The person behind the counter would let me know that they had their eye on me by glaring at me from behind the crystals, following me through the store pretending to dust something, or sometimes outwardly tell me that there was nothing which would suit my tastes in the store.  After all, having a witch in the store might scare the other customers away or might result in theft of an Edger Casey VHS set.  The New Age stores were desperate to keep general society from lumping them with the Pagan community. After all, it was the '80s.  The number of published materials on the Craft was enormous compared what was available at the introduction of Wicca to the US in the 1960's, and what was once an initiatory practice was now a do it yourself and by yourself feminist religion. The Satanic Panic as many of us began to call it was in full swing, and to the public there were satanists lurking in every tube of toothpaste and an occult crime scene waiting to be discovered in every unfortunate road kill. Meanwhile, the New Age was giving angel readings, and spreading "Christ Consciousness" and being as generally non-threatening as they could.  Surely, the two should never come together as they were practically polar opposites, right?

Then with the '90s came an explosion of popularity for Wicca.  Witchcraft became big business. Craft book stores began to spring up everywhere and popular television and media were overflowing with series and movies depicting "Wicca" which had been scrubbed and sanitized beyond all recognition.  If New Age stores wanted a piece of the pie they would have to start carrying Wiccan swag and not be so exclusive in their definition of "customer". The series Charmed gained popularity; how could it not when it was produced by the same guy who brought us 90210 and Melrose Place? Practical Magic was a practically made of sugar syrup, featuring a family of women who were "white witches" who stirred their coffee with a wave of their hand and solved all the problems in their love life with magic.  The the movie The Craft depicted Wicca as something more suited to rebellious high schoolers who wanted to level the social playing field of High School. All of these media versions bore terminology which belonged to Wicca, but used in such a way as to totally lose the original usage and meaning.  

Between the stores which were as numerous as zits on a teen's face, and the distorted image of Wicca on television, a new brand of "Wiccan" was emerging.  This fresh faced bunch believed that it was immoral to perform magic for personal gain because Phoebe on Charmed read it in the Book of Shadows.  They also started creating strong lines between what they called "white and black witchcraft" though this also was beginning earlier. Wicca became a gleaming beacon of white magic which was going to be a major world religion, and in the process began to become so watered down that it was but a ghost of its former self.  The self help focus of the new age began to creep into Wicca as more and more apologists hit the scene.  The smaller number of traditionalist voices were drowned out in the din of "don't tell me what to do" and "Wiccans don't judge, stop trying to be the boss of me!"  Those who could not bear these attitude either distanced themselves from the term Wicca or retreated into their traditional communities to watch (and sometimes mock) from the sidelines and draw even more distinct boundaries between their practice and that of what became as Fluffy Bunny Wicca and perhaps the kinder term Neo-Wicca. 

By the year 2000, I was finally in touch with what would become my traditional community, and I began to get a bit of a history lesson myself.  I learned from the older folks who had seen the Wica develop and change in the US since the '60s, and learned that most of what I had read from various authors was either completely false, or that it was constrained by oath and the guidelines of the publishers. I learned that Wicca had been highjacked in many ways, and that those who made off with it and angrily refused to acknowledge where it came from.  I learned a great deal more than the politics of a name.  I learned that Wicca isn't in the written rituals, it isn't "in our hearts", nor in how much Witchcrap you might buy to decorate your home with.  It is in the fellowship of the coven, the experiences of the individuals as they confront the mysteries and the growth which is the byproduct thereof. 

Today, as a leader of a coven I am continually aware of what I consider to be the misuse of the term Wicca. I have begun taking a greater interest in what is happening in the Pagan community at large, and have begun attending more public meet ups and events. I have heard many interesting things from the mouths of people I have met.  One of which is that Wicca is something separate from Gardnerian and Alexandrian practice.  Yup, you heard me. I have heard my tradition, and those of the Gardnerians etc called separate religions. I have also heard of "Christian Wicca" and Wiccans who don't practice magic.  I have tried to hide my surprise and horror at such notions, though I am sure I am not very good at it.  There have always been and always will be misconceptions about Wicca.  As more and more authors pour Wicca 101 type books into the marketplace, many of them having only read other authors' Wicca 101 books themselves,  telling their readers that Wicca is what you make it these misconceptions and and ignorance of Wicca's history will continue to persist.  I my area, numbers of folks have made the rounds to the large and growing number of Pagan groups in the community.  They report finding that the majority of the leaders in these groups have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Craft, and that many have learned all that they know from books which are readily available at the local book seller.

As stated in my last blog, I am a book lover, so no disrespect to reading, but Wicca is in the practice and oral traditions not found in the pages of a book.  It is passed from person to person, with care and effort, free of charge for the love of the practice and its stewardship.  That human interaction may be the first of the Mysteries which a seeker experiences after the initial pull which draws them to Wicca. Whether first or fourth, it is a precious thing which I treasure to this day.  The time, attention and diligence which I received in my training was truly a gift from the gods. I am very proud and humbled to be charged with passing that gift to others. Some of the folks reporting on their experiences in the Pagan community at large are turning to groups like mine for more traditional Craft training saying that this is their last attempt before washing their hands of the whole thing.  Others continue to redefine Wicca and themselves in their seeking.  Witchcraft is a broad and varied topic, one that doesn't need to be owned.  Each type contains beauty and should be celebrated for what it is.  Wicca is certainly not the only way to practice the Craft, but it is a specific one.  The Wica (the initiates of Wicca), do not hold some exclusive right to the gods, and the gods will call to those that they choose to be their own.  The New Age is also something different which deserves its own autonomy and is distinct from the Craft. I don't claim to be an expert on the New Age but I can see its hand in the shaping of what has become Neo-Wicca. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A few preparatory words...

Before I begin, I just want to make a few things clear.  I am only one voice in a very large and complex conversation and speak only for myself. What I express here is my opinion and people are welcomed to disagree.  When I use the term Wicca, I use it to mean the oath bound, initiatory, mystery tradition which became public through the writings of Gerald B. Gardner and all of the traditions which bear certain markers of practice in common.  These traditions have been referred to as British Traditional Wicca or BTW. My definitions might be a bit too strict for some, and may be perceived by others as "elitist" or worse, but they are my own and are often echoed in the writings of others who share similar traditions. More thoughts on what is or is not Wicca will become evident throughout my blog, no doubt.  In the surprise event that I do have a reader, if one of my posts offends you in some way or you feel the desire to comment please do.  I will deal with comments as kindly and respectfully as they were left. I do not, however, tolerate Internet trolls. 

So, on 3rd July 2013 I begin with a blog post into the dark.  Certainly no one has subscribed to this blog yet, and I have no reason to believe that anyone ever will.  I am no great scholar on the history or origins of witchcraft,  nor am I a degreed authority of any kind.  I am not an author, nor is it likely that I ever will be.  So why would anyone read what I have to say?

I have been a Pagan for 25 years and an initiate of Wicca for the last 10.  I have been a seeker, a solitary witch, a coven member and leader in that time and my opinions are based on the experiences I have had so far and what i have learned from my elders.  I reserve the right to change these opinions at any time.  There are plenty of folks with that have been initiates for 40+ years. I have had the good fortune to meet and interact with many in my time in the Craft. We are very fortunate to have such people in our community to learn from and to offer perspective. In getting to know them we get glimpses into our own history.  We become aware of how our practice has changed and stayed the same.  We learn how the pagan community has diversified in a very short time (relative to other movements or religious communities) and moved toward equal rights under the law.  Perhaps more importantly, these folks show us how to steward our traditions with dignity. 

I am intending to cover many subjects related to Paganism with a particular emphasis on Wicca and its derived non-initiatory practice which I will refer to Neo-Wicca for lack of better terminology. I believe that in terms of practice and outlook, non-initiatory forms of Wicca are often worlds apart from traditional forms and therefore I require the distinction for clarity. There is no disrespect intended in these distinctions, but such are often necessary.  One of several differences is that Neo-Wicca often is completely learned from books and other media.  Traditional Wicca is taught by people to people, free of charge.  Now, I am a bibliophile of the first order, and never would discourage or downplay anything just because it was learned through reading.  I would, however, compare Wicca to other crafts in that to read a book about carpentry is a different thing than being apprenticed by a carpenter. I also recognize that Wicca is not the only type of Witchcraft in the world. As a matter of fact, the tradition of Wicca of which I am an initiate contains lore which does not originate in Wicca at all, though it certainly blends and meshes beautifully.  

That's good for now.  A more specific subject is promised in the next post.