Sunday, November 30, 2014

Secrecy, Mystery, and Transparency

The traditional forms of the craft predate the Information Age and were in no way designed to function optimally in such a wide-open field. If you'll indulge me in a bit of cane-shaking, back in my day when I made my first foray into the wider world of witchcraft and pagan practice, it was very much up to chance as to who you might meet and how and when. Lacking the internet with portal sites and seekers' email lists and Facebook groups, your resources were limited to word-of-mouth, the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, a flyer put out by a brave coven, or a discreet ad in the back of one of the few major periodicals available in the local chain bookstore. Even so, if you managed to make a tenuous connection, you were mostly on your own, with only your own instincts to guide you as to whether or not the people you met were legitimate initiates of X tradition; and your only knowledge of X tradition was likely to come from said people, written material being scarce and hard to come by. It's difficult to seek further information if you have no idea where to look for it, or even what questions you need to be asking. The tide was shifting by the early to mid 1990s when I was initiated into my first trad, thanks to the explosion of popular pagan and Wiccan books, but it was still a very different time. Secrecy and mystery were experienced in a far different way.

Here in the 21st century, information is out there--in books, on web sites, in blogs and podcasts and every other form of social media. Where in older times the prospective initiate was the one who was being interviewed for a position, so to speak, now it isn't at all uncommon to see seekers quite openly checking up on the bona fides of the coven leaders and teachers they meet. There are email lists and open Facebook groups that exist specifically for such exchange, allowing cautious cowans to ask questions about tradition-specific practices and even about the lineages of specific people. When I was new into all of this, such exchange was all but unheard-of, and perhaps in some cases it still is; there are traditions still in which one's initiatory lineage is a secret only discussed with other initiates, where even the craft pseudonyms of one's upline are not mentioned among those outside the trad, but in the free-market of ideas that is our modern age it is only going to become harder and harder to maintain such secrecy. Seekers today are far from the tabula rasa of those from earlier eras; they read, they listen, they interact in a vastly interconnected way, and they come to pre-initiate practice with ideas and understandings their predecessors lacked. The challenges, then, for the teachers and leaders of today are amplified over what their own teachers faced back in the day.

I'll admit that I do not know the best way to navigate these challenges; much of this is still uncharted territory, still changing every day. Each tradition, each group, each person will ultimately decide for itself how much to reveal, and to whom, and when. Because there are no central registries, or for that matter any truly unbiased sources, a vouch is not always going to be available; and some initiates will be unwilling to reveal too much of their background to a questioning stranger. Documents can be easily faked. Ultimately a seeker is left to his or her own instincts as to who they can trust, who they want to work with, whether or not they can ferret out any information about their prospective teachers beyond what those teachers themselves are able or willing to share. In that way, at least, perhaps things haven't changed all that much from earlier times. More information may be available in our age, but more doesn't necessarily equal better. If anything, the technological revolution has made it easier to create and distribute misinformation, lies, and rumors than ever before.

So the need for secrecy--though I would personally term it confidentiality--must be weighed against the equally-vital need for transparency, and a balance must be struck. I would argue that there are things that a prospective initiate absolutely has the right to know upfront, things that trump concepts of "it's a secret" and "that's oathbound"--for if your oaths require you to lie to people about what will be expected of them, then that is an unethical oath, and you become an unethical leader by upholding it. (For the record, the oaths I've taken were all rather damnably vague about just what the "secrets" I was to be keeping were; oral tradition, I suppose, with variable mileage between trads and lines!) There are things that people want, and need, to know going in, things that in our modern age particularly simply cannot be swept aside as being degree-specific secrets. A balance between maintaining sufficient confidentiality to neither reveal too much of a trad's practices (thus spoiling the esoteric effects thereof) and allowing adequate accountability so that the seeker goes in confidently aware of what will or will not be expected of them (primarily in those areas about which seekers are always most concerned: sexually, physically, psychologically, monetarily). If your trad works heavily with entheogens, for example, and their usage is expected and required of initiates, then those seeking initiation need to be clearly aware of that upfront; and if they have read of the trad's usage of psychoactive substances and ask you about it, only to have you deny said usage categorically, then you have acted unethically, and betrayed your position as a leader. Denying things that are now common knowledge makes you look untrustworthy when the time comes that the truth is revealed.

Balancing the need for confidentiality, the desire to preserve mystery, and the necessity of transparency and accountability is difficult, but not impossible. It requires discipline, honesty, and integrity, all of which are important qualities in an initiate. You can preserve tradition, preserve the craft, and still be an ethical person, upfront and accountable.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Witchcraft: Geillis Duncan's Spell

I've been re-reading Diana Gabaldon's massive Outlander series, and magick does work its way through the narrative in ways both subtle and explicit. It is expressed most explicitly through a character who takes the pseudonym of Geillis Duncan and is a practitioner of what one might reasonably call the Dark Arts, what with all the killing and such.

In Drums of Autumn, the fourth novel in the series(1), we get a glimpse into Duncan's grimoire, which includes the following spell; I reproduce it here as it appears beginning on page 692 of the Nook edition of the book:

I raise my athame to the North,
where is the home of my power,
To the West,
where is the hearth of my soul,
To the South,
where is the seat of friendship and refuge,
To the East,
from whence rises the sun.

Then lay I my blade on the altar
I have made.
I sit down amid three flames.

Three points define a plane, and
I am fixed.
Four points box the earth and mine
is the fullness thereof.
Five is the number of protection;
let no demon hinder me.
My left hand is wreathed in gold,
and holds the power of the sun.
My right hand is sheathed in silver,
and the moon reigns serene.
I begin.

Garnets rest in love about my neck.
I will be faithful.


This would actually be a workable piece, though if I were to test-drive it I would alter the wording a bit to put it more in line with my own praxis (for example, I'd shift the directional attributions a bit, flipping the West and the South as given above). I like the reference to "three flames," which is then amplified by "three points define a plane"; to me this has parallels with the magician's Triangle of Manifestation as well as the symbol of the first degree initiation (at least within some traditions). The four points boxing the earth could easily be the cardinal points that mark the boundaries of the witch's personal universe. Five are the points of the pentagram, which can be used as a protective device. The gold/sun and silver/moon are familiar enough to be nearly self-explanatory. The garnets about the neck have a specific meaning in the narrative (as do the gold and silver on the respective hands), but the wearing of a necklace in ritual is common in BTW-derived witchcraft.

Tweaked to the specifics of one's personal style of working, this incantation might make a fine opening statement before a working. I may try doing just that.


(1) There are many books in this lengthy series of historical time-travel magical fantasy description-defying sagas. If you have the time and the inclination, I recommend them highly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Defining "Classic Witchcraft"

It was not that long ago that I reached the realization that at no time in my life have I ever known witchcraft that was wholly divorced from Wicca.

When I first became fascinated by the concept of witches and witchcraft, I was a child growing up in the 1970s. It was so long ago, and so much has happened since, that I couldn't say for certain how or when that fascination truly began--but begin it did, however it was triggered, and if I try to think back the earliest images that come to me are those of the familiar Halloween figure. Solitary, immeasurably ancient, black-clad, cat-accompanied, hideous and yet somehow appealing rather than appalling. Stirring a cauldron, stirring a potion, stirring up trouble, she was a defiant and transgressive figure, one not to be trifled with, the wielder of powers unknown and highly enticing to one so powerless as I. My first source materials were, naturally, children's literature and fairy tales, joined as I grew older by encyclopedias and books specifically on the subjects of witchcraft and magic, the occult and the paranormal; and all of those were very much products of the 20th century and the dubious scholarship and spurious claims of that century's witchcraft promoters.

Thus, I was early on introduced to such key concepts as "the Old Religion," the "Book of Shadows," even "the Cone of Power" and "the Burning Times," and of covens of witches performing their circular rites by the light of the full moon. I was not an exceptionally critical reader as a child; I read voraciously and indiscriminately, absorbing all sides of a thing and then letting the information simmer until my brain boiled over from the cognitive dissonance, demanding I sort it all out. I've since done so, of course, only to discover to my chagrin that what I always knew as witchcraft is indelibly, inextricably enmeshed with the trappings of the 20th century neopagan religion of Wicca (along with the borrowed elements of other systems that form parts of its composition).

Knowing this, how, then, do I define Classic Witchcraft? As an aesthetic as well as a practice, for one, because atmosphere can make or break a ritual. Bats and cats and the occasional pointed hat. Cauldrons and candles, owls and serpents. Skulls and bones. Incense and bonfires. All things eldritch and uncanny. Once the scene is set, the practice itself can take, well, almost any form that suits the situation. It could look like a fairly standard Wiccan ritual with a cast circle and all the trimmings, or it could be as spare as a steady silent gaze into a candle's flame. It might be performed robed, or skyclad, or in street clothes. Elaborate ceremonial with a lot of prep time and research, or completely off-the-cuff at a moment's notice. Indoors or outdoors. Better it be when the moon is full, unless it isn't.

What Classic Witchcraft is not is rote and regulated. The classic witch, that enduring figure that has never let go of my imagination, is not a person hemmed in by rules and restrictions or a lengthy list of Things That Must Be Done to make the practice "valid." The only real test of validity for the classic witch is, did it work? What works is what is key, and it will vary from one witch to the next, and it can only be discovered through experimentation. One witch can share ideas and experiences with another, and practices can (and should be!) handed on from one to the next; but those practices will likely look quite different from one generation to the next, and I've come to see that as not lamentable but laudable. A practice that isn't adaptable and progressive (which does not mean that it cannot also be grounded in tradition) is ultimately as relevant as a set piece in an old roadside museum: interesting, perhaps, but not very useful in practical application.