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.