Witchcraft of an Old Way and a New (by Helix)

[I’ve updated the title on this essay because too many readers were missing the statements that “these are tools for thought” and “not definitive” and “not without overlap,” etc. I understand that not everyone finds contrasting pairs* helpful, and further that not everyone will recognize their communities in these Ways — in which case, don’t use the model; it’s not relevant! For those who DO recognize these as dominant narratives in their communities, and have experienced (as I have) the conflicts that arise from not acknowledging them or respecting the differing points of view, I hope this way of thinking helps you. It would have helped me tremendously ten years ago!

*See the post-postscript for why these two ways do not form a meaningful dichotomy.]

I came to the Craft primarily through the workshop model of learning and teaching. In this model, a teacher (sometimes from inside the local community, but often from outside of it) presents a day-long or weekend intensive on a particular area of Craft practice. A fee is charged, usually on par with what a small church charges for a spiritual retreat. The relationship between teacher and student is a professional one: time, skills, and information are exchanged for dollars. After the workshop is over, if the student is very lucky or lives in a tight community, s/he may be able to work with what s/he learned in the context of a group or coven. More likely, s/he is left to work with the material on her own—at least until s/he can attend the next workshop.

There are variations on this model that have advantages and disadvantages, of course: some communities emphasize peer teaching, and others provide linked series of workshops that a committed group experiences together. In general, however, the workshop model best supports people learning in groups but practicing on their own.

When I began to study Craft material derived from the teachings of Victor and Cora Anderson, I joined electronic mailing lists in order to learn more. The discussions I witnessed there perplexed me to no end. Some participants had dogged attachments to magical secrecy and in-person, unpaid, one-on-one teaching that struck me as superstitious, almost nonsensical. Their reasons, when explained, might as well have been in another language; their perceptions of the Craft and its meaning left me helplessly scratching my head. I wondered if some of them were just plain crazy.

Fast-forward some years. My workshop-based training sent me down a spiritual rabbit hole that I now recognize as a drawn-out initiatory crisis. I was largely without supervision, though I had a peer working group for support. I struggled, formed deeper relationships with the gods and spirits of my tradition, and leaned hard on my friends.

By that point, I was becoming disillusioned with the workshop model of teaching the Craft, at least for anything that was not strictly skill-based. I had been introduced to gods and spirits in these workshops and then left to negotiate my relationships with them on my own. The road was rough, and I felt abandoned, having no one who had walked the path before to advise me.

Happily, I reconnected with a friend in the tradition who was willing to teach me. We circled together, and as my training focused in toward initiation, something amazing happened: all the stuff those crazy witches on mailing lists had been saying suddenly began to make sense.

I realized that there is more than one kind of witchcraft, more than one way of being a witch—and I don’t mean “there are different traditions of witchcraft.” The differences I’m talking about cross traditions and often exist uncomfortably side by side in a single tradition. I had initially been trained in a late twentieth/early twenty-first ethos of the Craft (ethos is the characteristic spirit of a group or culture, especially as exemplified in its beliefs, practices, customs, and ethics). For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call this ethos the “New Way.”

When my eventual initiator and I began working together, though, my eyes were opened to the existence of the “Old Way”—a Craft ethos that is internally coherent and, importantly, not particularly compatible with the New. In the Old Way, I found what I had been so earnestly seeking. I was lovingly initiated, and the Old Way became my own.

I write this essay because, although there is nothing wrong with either of these ways of doing the Craft, many people seek to practice witchcraft without realizing that these differing ways exist. That lack of awareness leads at best to confusion among people who try to work together, and at worst, ethical violations and ongoing conflict.

My purpose here is to explain the Old Way and the New Way in broad and even deliberately oversimplified terms. These two ways have some basis in history—the New Way is rooted in the Human Potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s, while the Old Way harkens back to traditional societies of many kinds. However, I don’t see these as “pure paradigms” that witches should strive to emulate. The reality of life is that almost no one practices the Craft purely “the Old Way” or “the New Way” (my own practice, though tipped toward the Old, contains elements of both). However, in defining these two ways of doing the Craft for myself, I’ve been able to unpack my own confusion when I, as a witch trained in New Way workshops, first encountered Old Way witches. This model has also helped me understand the philosophical differences that underlie persistent conflicts in our traditions, as well as uncovering where ethical pitfalls lie when combining Old and New Ways.

I’ve tried to avoid politicized terms such as “New Age witchcraft” and “traditional Witchcraft,” as I find they cause readers to bring too many pre-existing assumptions to the discussion. I hope that readers will allow themselves to recognize similarities between the ways I define here and these other concepts without leaping to the conclusion that they are identical.

TL;DR: “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 circle of witches dance around a central figure. Woodcut, ca. 1700-1720. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A circle of witches dance around a central figure. Woodcut, ca. 1700-1720. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Time and Justice

The New Way: Time may be thought of as linear or cyclic, but in either case, it is ruled by a myth of progress (cyclical time might be modeled as a rising spiral, for instance). The New Way is often millennial or apocalyptic. The human species is thought to be approaching a cusp or already in the middle of a great change, the beginning of a New Age or New Aeon. Witches may see themselves as trying to influence humanity to make particular choices and alliances in order to avoid a species-wide extinction. The New Way’s sense of time is that it is short, and spiritual action in the direction of justice is urgent. Witches may see themselves as attempting to steer great natural forces with planet-wide survival as the stakes.

The Old Way: Time is cyclic, and claims that a New Aeon is at hand are seen without urgency. For a witch practicing the Old Way, every Aeon is a New Aeon and every time is one of great change. Although witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues, they are skeptical of governments, ideologies, and organizations, seeing them as fundamentally ephemeral. For Old Way witches, social movements and ideologies—as well as disasters, famines, and wars—are like waves in the ocean: to attempt to alter their path only results in being swept up by them. Old Way witches are concerned with riding the waves, and helping those around them do so too; they are unlikely to claim the power to steer. Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.

 

Self, Community, and Training

The New Way: The development of the individual self is a primary goal for New Way witches. Embracing the feminist motto that “the personal is political,” the New Way witch sees hirself as the first thing s/he must transform in order to bring about harmony in the community and the world. Because the foundational work of witchcraft is individual, New Way witches don’t tend to see a cohesive group as essential to their Craft. Individual distance training as well as short-term trainings such as workshops and classes are considered effective methods of conveying the essence of the Craft. Each individual’s self is seen as unique, and training is often aimed at uncovering the authentic self. Much attention may be given to the question of identity and to building political or spiritual alliances with identity groups, from whom co-practitioners may be drawn. Authority and any credentials the witch claims are usually granted by teachers rather than by peers or students.

The Old Way: The Old Way witch is defined primarily by hir role in community, which grants hir whatever authority s/he holds. Maintaining community cohesion is an important goal, and it may be pursued even when doing so disadvantages the witch. Old Way witches make their living as others in their community do (for example, in rural communities, by farming or producing goods; in urban communities, by pursuing a profession), but they also take on tasks that discomfort or disturb others: treating the sick and the old; adjudicating disputes; preparing the dead for burial; looking into the future; casting or removing curses; advising the desperate. Perhaps because their loyalties are not solely to the human community, witches who serve in this way may find themselves set apart from others. Further, the nature of their work is marked by the particular community and land that they serve. Any training that they grant, therefore, is deeply personal, a product of their specific time and place. For them, there is no generic “Craft” that can be taught outside of that context. Individual self-development work, if pursued at all, is seen as secondary to forming relationships with land and neighbors of many kinds. If the witch has a coven, this small group of fellow outsiders may be treated as a sacred haven, the only place the witch feels fully seen.

 

Secrecy and Silence

The New Way: The New Way witch usually sees little to no useful role for secrecy and magical silence. Bigotry is believed to be based on ignorance, the antidote to which is knowledge. For the New Way witch, being open about witchcraft practices protects witches and helps to secure them their rights under the law. Secrecy is thought to have been useful only in the past, when mainstream culture was more overtly Christian and witches were in danger if they were exposed. Now that witches can safely be public in many parts of the Western world, it is the duty of all witches to band together to support any witches who are still being discriminated against. As for magical secrecy, it is generally irrelevant; the mysteries of witchcraft traditions have to be experienced and can’t be fully conveyed in a book or on a website, so there is no need to keep them secret. The keys to the mysteries can be hidden in plain sight, since only those who are ready for them will see them.

The Old Way: The Old Way witch sees women’s rights, gay rights, movement toward racial equality, and protection for non-dominant religions as extremely recent developments. Given the patterns of domination and violence that have marked the course of human history, these rights are viewed as potentially fleeting and not to be taken for granted. Secrecy and circumspection still provide protection for the witch, whose community may fear hir as much as value hir. Further, magical secrecy is part of what builds the container of intimacy that the witch may share with a few carefully chosen students or peers. This container deepens the intensity of shared magical work in much the same way as confidences between lovers deepen a sexual relationship. When peers are absent, secrecy may sometimes make a witch lonely. The Old Way witch, however, assumes that most people will not understand hir work, much of which others find uncomfortable or disturbing. S/he also must guard against those whose interest in the Craft is purely self-motivated, rather than in service of community. It is better to be lonely than to see sacred knowledge mocked or misused.

 

Money

The New Way: New Way witches are accustomed to living in a capitalist economy, where money is the default basis of exchange and education happens formally at schools or universities. For them, charging money for training in witchcraft helps to legitimize the Craft in the public eye and makes it more accessible to the modern world, which deeply needs its insights. Teachers who are paid for their work are thought to be able to focus more completely on their Craft and raise the quality of their material and their instruction, which creates better value for students. New Way witches may also sell spiritual counseling sessions, spellwork, witchcraft supplies, witchcraft instruction books and videos, and more, either in person or over the internet, and they may use modern marketing techniques to do so. For New Way witches, nothing is profane except that people make it so; money is simply a form of energy exchange and can be made sacred with fair trades and good intentions. These witches work to make such training widely available because they see themselves as serving a global community. Most believe that anyone can become a witch, and that most people should.

The Old Way: The Old Way witch often makes a living doing work that complements her witchcraft (for example, growing food or herbs, nursing, teaching, counseling, scholarship, arts or crafts, etc.), and s/he also may take money or barter for spells and remedies. Old Way witches, however, often dislike anything but the most perfunctory advertising of their witchcraft, as calling undue attention to oneself can be dangerous. Though they may write about the Craft, they are more likely to self-publish a plain-looking pamphlet than to offer up a colorful trade paperback from a major publisher. This is both to avoid attention from seekers who are not serious, and also because books are considered a poor substitute for person-to-person training. Old Way witches do not teach students for money, both because their Craft is so personal and because it is considered a calling, not a profession in the modern sense. Their teaching style is apprenticeship, in which the apprentice may be fostered in their house and takes on the status of a family member. A personal relationship is formed in which energy exchange is continuous: the student learns by assisting the witch in hir work. An Old Way witch wants to pass hir Craft only to a loved one, to a person who will care for the community they both serve after s/he is gone.

 

Purpose

The New Way: The purpose of witchcraft is to change the world and remake it in the image of justice.

The Old Way: Witchcraft has no externally motivated purpose. It is done for its own sake, because we are here and in relationship with all beings around us.

 

If you have read these comparisons thinking that the Old Way only makes sense in a pre-mass media, rural setting, while the New Way sounds specifically adapted to the urban twenty-first century—well, you have a point. It’s a struggle to practice witchcraft of the Old Way in a society dominated by the internet, where most people live in cities and have limited contact with the seasons and the land, and in which people routinely move across the country for education and jobs.

But here’s the thing—the Old Way and the New Way are not equivalent. They produce different kinds of witchcraft, and different kinds of magic workers.

If the New Way makes sense to you, go for it. It’s a coherent way of working magic. And similarly, if the Old Way feels right in your heart and in your gut, then please do join those of us trying to preserve its intimacy in these rapidly-changing times. The Old Way, we believe, is a way that made sense to witches three, five, ten, fifteen generations ago; it’s a way of working magic that draws on the things that stay the same even as times change.

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.

Take, for example, the practice of teaching oathbound witchcraft material for money. In the New Way as I described it, the belief is that the mysteries are in plain sight, available (for example) in nature, in the rich literature of the Western occult tradition, in mythology, in poetry, and in the world’s religions. In the New Way, payment is meant to reimburse a professional teacher for their time and skill. When you add the concept of “occult secrets” to paid training, the teaching model becomes incoherent. If the mysteries are all in plain sight, then to sell “occult secrets” is at best misleading and at worst, a scam.

Some New Way witches nevertheless believe that Old Way witches have secret knowledge that should be available to the public. Attempts to infiltrate Old Way groups to steal their oathbound lore and then sell it in the spiritual marketplace, however, are sleazy and exploitative. Further, these attempts reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of oathbound material under the Old Way. Old Way “secrets” are passed from mouth to ear because they are the product of intimacy between witches, their gods, and each other. They are context-dependent and deeply personal—the magical equivalent of pillow talk between lovers. To sell these “secrets” for money is much like selling a family’s heirloom love letters while claiming they will help the reader have better sex—an invasion of privacy that does not bring the world anything genuinely new, no matter what the marketing claims.

Witchcraft of the Old Way is often not served well by New Way approaches either. Because we are all living in the twenty-first century, and most of us are Americans and heir to the United States’ heritage of rabid individualism, it is the rare witch who understands what it means to be defined primarily by one’s community role. Most of us struggle to imagine how de-emphasizing the individual could be a good thing; we have probably noticed that without self-work, one tends to get mentally unbalanced, unstable witches who are little good to those around them.

In the past, perhaps, the fact that one could not choose one’s community and must cleave to it for survival molded witches differently. Today, in an era defined by individualism and mobility, some kind of explicit self-work seems necessary for magical workers. Our emphasis on unique individual identity, however, complicates “self” and “ego” work and has undermined our ability to maintain stable communities and small groups. The willingness to compromise and negotiate on matters large and small has waned as people’s perceived options for distance community have increased. Many self-identifying witches now practice without in-person teacher or peers, preferring to seek out others who share their niche interests on the internet. Because no local group fits the practitioner’s highly specific sense of identity, no local group can ever be “good enough”—and the witch’s opportunities to experience intimacy in practice are much reduced. The modern sense of disconnection, of true community always just beyond reach, plagues witches of all types, regardless of whether they find themselves attracted to the Old or the New Way; but is it particularly destructive for Old Way witches, whose practice requires local, embodied relationship.

 

To close, I will simply repeat that the “Old Way” and “New Way” as defined here are primarily meant as tools for thought. They are a product of my observations of modern witches and of my own evolution in understanding of the Craft, not the result of historical research. However, I think they help to untangle some common debates in witchcraft. Rather than seeing our debate opponents as necessarily wrong, we could instead see them as working within a different, internally coherent ethos of the Craft.

Additionally, I’d like to suggest that both Old Way and New Way witches would benefit if they respectfully declined to work together, at least closely in a coven or circle. While Old Way and New Way witches have the potential to be allies, in intimate working situations, their contrasting values set them up for bitter conflict. As in many areas of life, distance can be healthy.

 

POSTSCRIPT: I’m a little surprised to hear readers describing the Old Way as “apolitical” or “disengaged” or “not interested in social justice.” To quote from the above: “witches of the Old Way may care greatly about justice issues… Their justice work is most likely to focus on the land on which they live and on their families, friends, and neighbors: the sphere in which they have the most power.” Having a purely local focus for one’s service (and perhaps a pessimistic outlook on our effective reach as individuals) is not the same as having no interest in justice.

I see this as a misunderstanding among witches of different approaches: there seems to be a perception that if service work doesn’t have a national or global focus, or if it doesn’t use the language of activism, it’s not really justice work. My own justice work (primarily in advocacy for sexual minorities and around sexual ethics), has resembled more the New Way than the Old; but I would like to see people who do their service locally–perhaps without talking much about it or formally joining a justice-oriented organization–given more respect.

Additionally, I see some readers assuming that despite all the nice things I have to say about the New Way, I don’t really mean them; what I *really* think is that the Old Way is the One True Craft. Well, I don’t think that, plain and simple. I continue to have some New Way elements in my practice–for instance, I’ve taught witchcraft workshops for money before, and I might do it again if I felt that a professional, short-term teacher/student relationship was the appropriate one for the material. I also still greatly value my relationships with particular Reclaiming practitioners and communities (love you, TejasWeb!). I’m glad that witches are walking a New Way path, even if I’m not walking it myself anymore. The fact that I wouldn’t join a Reclaiming coven at this point in my life is not because I don’t think Reclaiming witches are awesome, but because the core of what we want from witchcraft is different; and if we tried to circle together we’d probably all get really frustrated!

Additionally, just to be clear, this essay has nothing at all to do with Pagan traditions that don’t consider themselves witchcraft, nor with the Pagan community as a whole. The intended audience here is one that doesn’t think of “witchcraft” as strictly Pagan, and definitely not as synonymous with contemporary Paganism.

Further, I am sure there are more ways of doing the Craft than just two! However, when I think about the witches I know who have broken each other’s hearts, who are still curled up around betrayals or perceived betrayals that happened years or decades ago, thinking about these two Ways (with their differing expectations and obligations) has often made the cause of the conflict clearer. Although often not fully articulated, one or both narratives have informed all of the Craft communities I have been part of (Faery/Feri, Reclaiming, BTW).

In any case… Please don’t make this essay be about how one group of people or another suck, because that is very much NOT what I think. This essay is about how some witches are really different from each other, and that is not because one set or another is wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact, THEY CAN BOTH BE RIGHT. If we can acknowledge our differences and respect them, I think the possibility of mostly-Old Way witches and mostly-New Way witches being able to be allies (at least in certain areas) would be much greater.

That’s not possible, though, so long as we cannot conceptualize each others’ positions in positive terms. The New Way and Old Way as I’ve described them here are both GOOD THINGS. That’s how I see them, anyway–though I am beginning to realize that some readers see some of their qualities as obvious flaws; so obvious, in fact, that surely NO ONE could EVER think they were virtues. And it’s right there that communication breaks down… To understand one another, we need to be able to imagine that some way of being that would be terrible and broken for us could be beautiful and healthy for someone else. (BDSM educators, I’m sure this point sounds familiar!)

So yeah. I know it’s all too easy to perceive someone else’s very different point of view as a moral failing, rather than as a product of benign human variation. I’ve done it; we all do it. But let’s try a different way today, okay?

Old Way with a sprinkle of New, carefully considered. New Way with a sprinkle of Old, deeply contemplated. A concept of BENIGN HUMAN VARIATION, plus the realization that just as not everyone is cut out to be married to each other, not every kind of witch is meant to circle or coven together.  Even in the wake of terrible witch wars and years-long conflicts… In appreciating difference, could there be a basis of friendship there, or at least civility? Perhaps the potential to work harmoniously on projects of mutual concern?

I hope so, very much.

 

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Initially when folks referred to these two ways as a dichotomy, I agreed, thinking, well, they have some oppositional qualities that are in tension, sure. But I’m rethinking that. Just because these ways have been perceived as a dichotomy in various Craft communities doesn’t mean that they are.

Thinking in dichotomies is always tempting because they are such useful teaching tools. Anyone who has ever taught a small child knows the usefulness of pairs like big/little, quiet/loud, and yummy/yucky. Most child development books teach parents to present no more than two options for any given choice, because small children are otherwise easily overwhelmed or confused by more. (Heck, my kid sometimes looks at me wide-eyed when there are two — he’d rather there be one which he can accept or refuse.) Even the education of older children and adults often begins with a simplified model of a topic so students can get some signposts in places before they learn more. If one is studying Buddhism, for example, the most common way to introduce the topic is to contrast Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism — not because these are the only forms, but because they are historically important and present helpful contrasts. Knowledge of these major branches of the tradition can provide context for studying others.

The truth is, all dichotomies are false.

Shall I repeat that?

All dichotomies are false.

The world is a complicated place. Any contrasting pair leaves out myriad other options. Nor does a contrasting pair necessarily describe extremes that define a middle ground. Some pairs helpfully define a spectrum; others are more like areas on a grid.

I’m not sure yet what I think the relationship of this particular Old Way and New Way are to each other. Some facets are in opposition, such as their attitudes toward secrecy and whether or not the teaching relationship should also be a love or family relationship. Some are more complementary, like their approaches to justice, with the New Way being more big-picture while the Old Way is very locally-oriented. With that latter pairing, though, I don’t see the two categories as exclusive. I imagine few New Way witches engage in justice work with no local component at all; and similarly, in this age of mass media, I doubt any Old Way witch does local justice work with no knowledge of national or global issues.

Further, although the New Way is well-adapted to our current historical moment (in fact, I would say it is a response to it!), the Old Way reads like an artifact, a portrait of a way that fits uncomfortably with the demands of modern life. I think in the 1970s and 1980s, many witches saw the evolving New Way as an heir to the Old. Today, this conception of the two makes less sense to me, as the differences in their purposes and effects seem increasingly stark. The fact that New and Old Way witches attempting to circle together consistently spend more time fighting among themselves than actually doing their work leads me to believe that the distance between the two is more than a simple generational gap.

To connect this P.P.S. back to the main essay, I am still convinced that although there are some areas in which practitioners of these two ways can borrow from each other, there remain many areas in which attempts to combine the two ways result either in ethical problems or in a loss of effectiveness. Witches who are attracted to the Old Way, I think, would benefit greatly in talking among themselves about how an intimate Old Way ethos can be best translated into a modern world dominated by communications technology.

Since I am no longer an active part of a witchcraft community practicing the New Way, I can’t speak to what witches practicing that way most need. What I do know from my time there is that some New Way witches are anxious that something essential to their Craft has been lost with the decline of the Old Way, which is what has driven the publication of so much formerly oathbound material. I don’t believe this is the case; I think for those who are called to it, the New Way really is complete unto itself.

Do the Old Way and the New need each other? I think they do not; just as in love relationships, to need someone often comes with the desire to control them. Instead, I continue to dream of a relationship based not on need, but on mutual respect and friendship.

[Thanks for Yvonne Aburrow for a thoughtful response to this article and to those who commented there.]

 

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