Which Witch is Which?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a keen interest in things occult and that I am connected with the Pagan-Wiccan community in Australia (though I am not a Pagan or a Witch). In recent months the recurrent topic of tradition has been debated at some length, often with animosity. It would seem that the crux of the matter is the differences in opinion between many of the old school of Pagans-Witches, mostly Gardnerians and Alexandrians, and the new wave of witches and neo-pagans that have evolved their ideas and beliefs in isolation from established groups, the self styled Eclectic Witches.

This debate, which it seems will continue a long while yet, raises some other crucial questions that face the evolution of the Paganism-Wicca into the future. The most obvious question is what is tradition and what claims do the various Pagan-Wiccan sects have on particular traditions? More subtly we could also ask why tradition is important anyway. But the most important question that this debate over tradition raises is what is Paganism or Wicca exactly? Is there a mainstream Paganism or is witchcraft truly just a general heading for a group of spiritual beliefs that, apart from a facile resemblance to one another, have almost nothing in common? In that context, are the established sects of Wicca no longer relevant or becoming less so as Paganism grows more eclectic, more mainstream and more acceptable to the middle class?

The O.E.D. defines tradition as the action of handing over or handing down from one to another or from generation to generation; the transmission of statements, beliefs, rules, customs, or the like, especially by word of mouth or by practice without writing. The beliefs and practices that are being handed down in the longer established covens (I know a few that are at least 35 years old) derives from the Alexandrian and Gardnerian Book of Shadows. In my essay The Rosicrucian Roots of Modern Witchcraft Cults the history of these seminal books of Wicca is clearly shown to be modern, a collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner, and have more connection with Rosicrucianism than with genuine pre-Christian Paganism. So in the end the traditions of Wicca are only sixty or seventy years old.

The published research of Ronald Hutton tends to support this view and makes the point that Paganism-Wicca is a new, evolving religion that has little if any connection to witchcraft of antiquity. In his article Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View The Pomegranate 12.2(2010) he implies that he sees structured research into genuine Pagan practices, perhaps for modern adaptation, as the way forward for the Wiccan movement. Taking that view would mean that Paganism-Wicca is in a stage of its development when traditions are being established just as Wicca is currently establishing its identity in world religion. Hutton’s article seems to indicate that there might be some scope for Pagans-Wiccans to re-paganify some of the some of the Christian practices that were themselves adapted from the pre-Christian spiritual beliefs contemporary with the establishment of the church. What I took away from the article was that for Paganism-Wicca to survive it must evolve, become more completely encompassing of its adherents levels of participation  and it must be a contemporary spiritual movement.

So, as it is difficult to exactly define Paganism-Wicca by some baseline of measurement (as can be applied to older mainstream religious sects) it follows that there is a lot of literature written on the subject that is merely populist in nature expounding a lot of practices that old school witches would never call witchcraft. The modern conception seems to be that anyone can burn a stick of incense, light a few black candles, recite a bit of an arcane charm and it’s witchcraft and so, ergo, they are witches. This is patently not the case though, as all experienced students of Wicca know. But I believe that the truth is somewhere in between and that there will be different levels of commitment possible to the spiritual learning of Wicca that will be acceptable for someone to call themselves a witch. The old covens will have to relinquish their exclusivity to that name as the inevitable talented amateurs come along that have an impact on the direction of the movement.

In a conversation that I had recently with Caroline Tully, a well known Witch in the Australian Pagan scene, she pointed out that the reason, as she saw it, that there were so many DIY witches now is that the Alexandrian and Gardnerian covens had been too exclusionist and so had driven away potential traditionalist Pagans into their eclectic practices. If this is so then there must come a time when the elitist old schools of Wicca are far outnumbered, if they aren’t already. Ultimately the mass of the eclectic movement will, over time, establish its own organic traditions that may render the original Alexandrian/Gardnerian practices less and less relevant to mainstream Wicca as it is found in the suburbs.

In view of this, Wicca seems to be at a crossroads and in order to go on without de-evolving into sectarianism it must now determine its identity and what direction it is going to take into the future. Lately there has been a drive amongst Pagans to fill out the upcoming Australian Census form in a certain way so as to count Aussie Pagans properly and that shows a groundswell of desire to become more mainstream, better understood and just to be accepted. Having survived the identity crisis of discovering the falsity of its ancient lineage it must still hang on to much of that past whilst it builds a new tradition.

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About dgmattichakjr

D G Mattichak jr was born in 1963 in Syracuse New York and immigrated to Melbourne Australia with his family in 1972. He was educated in one of Melbourne’s exclusive private schools before studying art at Preston Technical College. D G Mattichak jr has been a student of the occult arts since the early 1980s and has become well known in Australian magickal circles and, in recent years, around the world due to a string of essays on a variety of occult subjects http://www.scribd.com/dmattichak/shelf . He discovered the “key to the order & value of the English alphabet” from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law in 1983 and has since used this English Qabalah to unlock the secrets of Thelemite magick. Success in these methods admitted him to the highest levels of attainment in various Hermetic disciplines and until recently he has been passing on his knowledge to private students, many of whom have gone on to become notable occultists in their own right. After almost three decades of study and development D G Mattichak jr has finally been able to distil his knowledge of magick and Thelema into a book- A Comment on the Verses of the Book of the Law, the first in a planned series of books on Hermeticism and Thelemite magick, revealing, for the first time in over a century, the secrets of magick that have been hidden in Crowley’s magnum opus, the Book of the Law. D G Mattichak jr currently lives in Melbourne Australia with his artist wife Michelle and their two cats. He has had a long career as an al a carte chef in Melbourne’s vibrant hospitality scene and now spends his time writing blogs on cooking, writing and, in the guise of Master Ankh af na Khonsu, about magick. He is also one of the founding members of the Mt Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering and regularly contributes to its official website http://mountfranklinannualpagangathering.blogspot.com/ as both an administrator and as an author. D G Mattichak jr’s first book Loot was released in 2009. His books are available through amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias=stripbooks&field-keywords=D G Mattichak&x=13&y=20 .
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15 Responses to Which Witch is Which?

  1. I don’t think Gardnerian or Alexandrian traditions will become less ‘relevent’ in Australia, they’ll just have less members than the DIY types of witchcraft here. This is already the case and has been since the late 90s with the boom in witchcraft here in Oz. It’s the opposite of how things are in Britain – Gardnerians and Alexandrians are in the majority there, whereas DIY is in the minority. Its all about accessability.

  2. Oh, I see, you said less relevent to “mainstream Wicca as it is found in the suburbs”. Well, I do still think that DIY witchcraft uses the ritual style and structure of BTW Wicca, but not the lineage initiations – it can’t because it is not part of those lineages. Pus, whatis called ‘Paganism’ by which I mean neoPaganism also tends to use Wiccan models of ritual stype and structure. So, while actual membership of lineage Wicca may become – and is – less common, the general influence of it is still strong. Even thoguh there are other styles available. I guess its all about what books one has been reading…. Even witchcrafts that claim to be completely unrelated to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca – such as types of Traditional Witchcraft fromt he UK, have some suspicious looking similarities to Wicca.

    • I think that this stems from the fact that a great proportion of the written material about Wicca in the beginning was so heavily influenced by the Golden Dawn, Crowley and the Victorian ideas about what magick is. Ultimately, good or serious students will trace the reference material back to its origins and the result seems likely to be a homogeneous sort of witchcraft with some individual twists.

  3. Mary says:

    Is it exclusivity or is it a case of people generally being unwilling to commit to a path which requires commitment, training and dedication and who would far rather a more ‘freestyle’ approach to witchcraft and a do it your way style?
    Coming from one of those Wicca lineaged traditions-I’ll wager its the latter rather, than the former….

    • I personally found that it was (and still is) hard to be accepted by a traditional coven. This isn’t surprizing really as witchcraft is supposed to be secretive but I certainly felt unwelcome in some circles of witches over the years. I imagine that there is a bit of both sides at work. I have known students of magick that were quite willing to commit to a traditional discipline but couldn’t find acceptance in a coven whilst I am also acquainted with witches who have left covens because they were too structured. As a magician I feel that disciplined and orderly practice and submitting to the rules of the order are paramount to success. Regardless of whether the traditionalists or the Eclectics are right there is still the question of Wicca-Paganism’s public face. Are the right people putting the right image of witchcraft in the public eye. Could the undisciplined actually undo a lot of the progress that has been made towards Wicca’s mainstream acceptance?

  4. Ed Hurst says:

    From someone outside the whole question, it seems part of the debate turns on whether one views the label “witch” as marking a leader, practitioner, or somehow different from dabblers who simply use the craft now and then. Or is it more a matter of what one proclaims oneself to be?

  5. Ed Hurst says:

    For someone outside the question, I wonder if the debate hinges in any way on whether the label “witch” signifies a position of leadership, simply a regular practitioner or can include someone who only dabbles in the craft now and then. Or is it simply a matter of self-proclamation?

    • Witch does seem to have all of those connotations. In the 1980s it was unusual for dabblers to call themselves witches but now it seems that a lot of these less serious adherents call themselves witches based upon their private unstructured efforts. Generally Ed the witches that I do know (I am not one myself) only call themselves “Witch” when they have attained a certain level of competency- this seems to be a thing of the past. It is popular to call yourself Witch now.

  6. Mary says:

    Frankly its my experience that here in Australia, the worst type of attacks are towards traditional folk- from the general neo-pagan population. I’m not sure why this is so, suffice to say that the UK and US don’t seem to have the same sorts of issues. I’d concede that it isn’t as all welcoming as people may expect, but nothing could really be considered as it seems. If that sounds cryptic-my apologies but really nothing is ever how it necessarily appears. Traditional people here sink more and more underground because paganism/alternative beliefs tend to have a high incidence of nutters who are attracted to it. Anyone who is serious about magic and energy knows how diabolical a mix of this and mental disturbance/illness. Or, the ego’s grow so tremendous that the practitioners work ceases to be about anything meaningful simply a avenue of self exploitation and grandiosity. Traditional lineaged Witches are servants and vessels for the Gods post initiation, it is folly to set aside the reasoning behind initiations. Should traditional folk step out more and provide a more public face and option to that currently popularised? Why should we? Moreover why should we care what the public thinks of Witchcraft, paganism-or of being ‘accepted’?

    • I think that this is because non-traditional witches are very self conscious about the lack of structure and discipline in their approach to magick. I have always taken the view that discipline is essential to progress in anything- most especially in magick. I don’t feel that traditional witches should be welcoming new acolytes with open arms but I do see that the time is coming when the bulk of Wiccans-Pagans do want to be accepted in the mainstream. There is evidence of this already with several online campaigns to raise the profile of Paganism and Witchcraft in the Australian census next week. On the other hand, the outside world is coming to look for Wicca as it does become more acceptable to the middle classes. Dealing with this is, I believe, the next stage in the development of Wicca as a world religion (something that I am in no doubt will happen). Nutters are attracted to every religion- look at how many world class loonies there are in extremist Christian, Islamic, Scientologist and every other ism and ology that abounds at the minute. My experience of Wiccan covens is that they are fairly good at weeding out the unfit candidates and they do it with a lot more care than some of the magickal groups that I’ve known. Ultimately though, I think that the bulk of those that call themselves Pagans or Witches will want the same rights and considerations as every other religion receives from Government and the Law so it is inevitable that a public face of Wicca-Paganism will have to be settled upon at some stage. I look on with great interest.

  7. Mary says:

    Love your blog by the way David, great thought provoking articles thank you.

    • Coming from you Mary, that means a lot. It is my intention to raise some issues that many of the magickal community will get up about enough to argue with me about them. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your erudite opinion- you are always welcome here.

  8. Mary says:

    I absolutely agree with you with regard to those less mentally stable being attracted to all religions, of course! Fundamentalism is oft driven by both extreme passion but also I believe by intense delusion. However, the issue of Wicca per se being looked to as an acceptable profile in the community is an interesting one. Again, I think you need to separate which WIcca we are discussing! Are we referring to what now is commonly referred to in the US (for example) as British Traditional Wicca (that is lineaged, initiatory Wicca tracing back to Gerald Gardner) or the Wicca where all and sundry pick up a Ly de Angeles (or Warren or Warren-Clarke) Fiona Horne, etc (list is exhaustive) book and have an ‘ah ha’ moment and declare themselves as ‘Wiccan’? Although these people may write and publish this doesn’t necessarily equate with authority on this particular topic. Certainly this (loosely termed ‘literature’) opens up the public to a way of thought, however it also doesn’t specify particularly what that thought is other than a DIY approach. Nothing wrong with that inherently, I’m an avid supporter of people following whatever floats their boat. However, when this kind of writing surruptitiously promotes the idea of ‘Al la peanut butter sandwiches! You are now a witch because you believe it so’, frankly I think thats a load of BS. Again I’d draw you back to what seems to be pervasive and consistent anti-Tradition sentiment in the general pagan population. As recently as today one writer posted to an Australian e-list questioning the initiatory path, this was met by a fellow contributor who concludes that ergo Initiatory Wicca represents ‘snobbery’. This was further supported by another who added that “I think it is simply a way to keep a closed club for some; a way to maintain an “Us and Them” status”!!! (Um, What???). One contibutor alone attempted to enlighten the e-list as to what initiation may be. This shows the endless tail chasing argument that continues to be an old chestnut year after year here at least in Australia and dare I say it an almost deliberate ignorance. Traditional people aren’t going to come out and provide another side of the coin, because frankly we have done so a myriad of times historically to no avail. Thus we move onwards doing what we do and for the most part ignoring those that have chosen another way-as is their right to do so. My question is however, why are we as Traditionals *expected* to tolerate eclectic paths and accept those that ursurp and base their style and beliefs on none other than Traditional Wiccan practice ( and indeed utilise the same terminology) yet openly the ‘community’ and elists assault the Traditions with accusations such as those described here? Such hypocrisy from the very vocal supporters of *tolerance* is incredulous at best and embarrassing at worst. There is certainly the drive for recognition and ‘rights’ and profile raising as you noted with the upcoming census. However, I think that any notion of a ‘unified pagan’ community is no more than a pipedream. Traditionals *will* continue to grow and nuture the traditions of which they are stewards, however the rights of people as individuals and that of humanity (to my mind at least) is a far more pressing concern than those rights afforded to a movement or religion. In the first instance I consider myself a humanist, the care and concern of humans and our development is one of my first priorities (and interest), moreso than the ridiculous base assertions, indignation and opinions (hypocrisy) of certain corners of the general pagan population. I don’t need to work within the structure and construct of a christian framework. So my question again is why do we need to elevate the public status of a deeply personal and private path?

    • I suppose that the DIY Witches will dominate the public face of Wicca simply because the traditionalists are unwilling to be public about their religion- as is their right of course. This raises the question then of are the traditional Witches happy with the public face that eclectic witches are presenting. Is it acceptable that Fiona Horne is what the mainstream thinks of as a witch. In an interview that I quoted in a previous post on my ankhafnakhonsu blog http://ankhafnakhonsu.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/a-question-of-discipline/ the eclectic witches actually talked at length about the importance of wearing a pointy hat! That doesn’t sound like the traditional witches that I know. Is it right that these uninitiated (there I said it!) people are the public face of Wicca? There is obviously a groundswell of desire for religious equality and recognition among people that call themselves Witches or Pagans- is it the case that traditional Witches don’t want equal religious rights under the law, equal consideration by government and protection from discrimination? Personally I don’t think that practicing covens should change their modus operandi one bit. I know from experience that if someone is truly called to the path that they will find their way onto it whereas those that just fancy that they are drawn to magick soon fall away from the discipline. Magick is very harsh in this respect but Wicca-Paganism is a religion and so there must be provision for differing levels of commitment, how does Wicca address the more casual witch? Is there an inner and an outer school of witchcraft, a core of initiates that acts as spiritual guides to those obviously pagan souls who will also obviously never have the skills to progress through the degrees? Are there Wiccan lay brothers and sisters? Is it possible to limit the label of “true” Wicca to those very few people that will have the opportunity to even meet, let alone join, a traditional Alexandrian coven?
      I too sense that there is a certain amount of animosity shown to the old school witches by the latest wave of DIY witches. I think that some of it stems from rejection. Most of us expect that when we find others that share our beliefs and interests that they will accept us with open arms and when that turns out not to be the case they can be very disappointed. I also think that DIY witches struggle to make progress as they don’t have a clearly delineated goal for their work as so they become frustrated. In my own experience Novice magicians often balk at the amount of study that is required to perform even the simplest magick and I am sure that Wicca requires a similar effort so the rejected student may also never have the capacity to learn the material in the first place- jealousy is a green eyed monster. I think that ultimately the majority of DIY witches will drift away, they will undoubtedly be replaced but the lack of consistency will mean that eclectic witchcraft will never evolve a system of progress like the traditional sects have and so they will fade. It may be that there will be talented individuals that will actually devise their own valid schools of Wicca into the future, I know that some have started, but whether they stand the test of time remains to be seen.
      Thanks for the insightful comments again Mary, the traffic through this page has inspired me to continue with the topic so please come back and share some more.

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