Faery/Feri is an ecstatic tradition of witchcraft. That means it’s an embodied tradition, and it’s a lineage passed physically. By its very nature it requires in-person transmission. But many of us, for various reasons, will never live near an initiate or be able to travel to visit one. What do we do if this flavor of the craft speaks to us and we find ourselves without access to a teacher?
The first big thing we must do is let go of expectation. A sure way to get ourselves into the weeds is by trying to compel something to happen. To learn any esoteric system, but especially one that is left-hand, a trustworthy, responsible teacher with integrity is paramount. If you try to force your access to a teacher you will end up settling — and that’s a bad, potentially even dangerous idea.
So, just take a deep breath and let it go. Let go of your expectation around Anderson Faery. Let’s do it together. Ready? Deep breath… and let go.
Now let’s chat about some things you *can* do.
Work on Your Self
A key tenet of Anderson Faery is the divine nature of the human self in its multi-part form. The self can be developed and explored through many systems and practices. This is not dependent on Faery. Start here. Begin the tasks of self-reflection, personal development, and resiliency training. You might find an established meditation group nearby, search for a good therapist to explore with, or ask like-minded friends to form a regular sitting group with you. A healthy, balanced Self is the cornerstone for any human, Faery witch or otherwise.
If you’re struggling to find an open-minded therapist in your area, look for therapists who advertise a specialty in LGBTQ+ issues. Many of these therapists are also familiar with alternative spiritual paths and will not pathologize or be put off by your spiritual interests.
Deconstruct Your Worldview
The dismantling of the conventional worldview to intentionally cultivate an enchanted, embodied, interconnected worldview is a foundational practice within Anderson Faery. A good way to go about this is through study. There are many books available that will let you see a little more sideways and question aspects of culture you may not have before.
A list of reading material that might be helpful is below. Don’t rush these books. Instead go slowly, contemplatively, making notes as thoughts arise. It’s by spending time with mind-expanding concepts that transformation occurs. Maybe that sitting group you formed could read through these together?
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World by David Abram
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Joy Diet: Ten Daily Practices for a Happier Life by Martha Beck
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessell van der Kolk
Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake by Christine Hoff Kraemer (contact the author if price puts it out of reach)
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman
Fiction and poetry can also be powerful tools for re-orienting yourself to the world. Both Victor and Cora Anderson were poets. Their seriousness about poetry was such that Cora spent their entire life savings to publish Victor’s first book of poetry, Thorns of the Bloodrose. Good poetry can encourage us to think non-linearly and open us to subtle experiences that can only be pointed to with words; good fiction can challenge us to see layers to the world that we never guessed at before. Read widely: classics, speculative fiction, mythology, anything that shifts your perspective or makes you jump out of your seat with sudden recognition. We can’t tell you which writers will open your heart and blow your mind, but Helix loves Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and Traci loves Fiona Macleod (William Sharp) and The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.
Get to Know Your Ancestors
Like many ecstatic traditions, Anderson Faery has a strong thread of Ancestral veneration. Whether you have a nurturing or harmful relationship with ancestors of blood, their genetic heritage is still yours. The work of a witch is to explore those threads, heal them so S/He Hirself is healed, and strengthen their resiliency for the benefit of our descendants. Yet this is not purely imaginal. If you aren’t up to date on the new science of heritability, you might look at It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle by Mark Wolynn.
A practical first step in the process of forming relationship with your ancestors is to create a dedicated space for offerings. This can be as simple as a clean surface with a little cup for water. Add family photographs or heirlooms if you like. Pour fresh water in the cup and say a little blessing over it, such as, “May my ancestors be blessed, may my descendants be blessed.” There is more elaborate and complex work that can be done, but this small step will take you far.
Leave Your House
If this all sounds very heady thus far, it has been. An educated witch is a prepared witch, but the body is included in that. Get out of your box — out of your car, your room, your apartment, your house — and put your feet and elbows in the grass. Explore the land around you. This may be a city park, a strip of wild grasses along a curb, or rambling lanes in the deep countryside. You don’t need to do anything out there, just observe. Be polite. Say hello to other living beings you meet — in your out-loud voice. Witches may be uncanny, quirky, and psychic, but we rarely read each other’s minds, so don’t expect other-than-human persons (big or small) to read yours.
Observe the clouds and the winds where you live. From which direction do they predominantly blow? What does the wind from those different directions feel like on your skin, what sensations do you get, is there a taste? Record your observations in some way. It doesn’t have to be with words. Use movement, poetry, painting, clay, or music. Continue these observations for other living beings, like animals, rivers, birds, insects, trees, flowers. Pick up rubbish (as an offering and act of service) and spend time with the persons you meet. You’ll be surprised at the strong friendships you build by just showing up and sitting with someone, whether they are human or not.
Speaking of art, explore yours. How do you express your creativity? Do you move your body, perhaps through ecstatic dance, yoga, line-dancing, or ballet? Do you paint, draw, sew, or knit? Dedicate time to the cultivation and expression of your creativity. Creativity is life force, and Anderson Faery focuses strongly on feeding and expressing this part of our Self. You don’t need to spend money on this pursuit, but it should be something you create a regular practice around. Allowing creative expression to flow keeps our channels of life force open and clear.
This is a sex-positive tradition because Sex is Life. Have sex not for procreative purposes, but for pleasure, either with yourself alone, with an enthusiastic partner, or through deliberate erotic connection with the land.
We value pleasure, just as we value personal responsibility. We value knowing and owning our choices, behavior, and actions. Hopefully part of your study on dismantling worldview has led you to question cultural norms around sexuality and to ask yourself what your own authentic views are. What is the nature of your sexuality, and how can you nurture it and express it in healthy, responsible ways?
Try taking a bath or shower while fully focusing on the feel of the water moving over your skin. Simple, huh? Really experience it. What does the water trickling over your ankle bone feel like, or the small of your back, or your shoulder? Better yet, go outside: lie on the ground under the full sun. Spread your body out, expose a bit of skin, and feel the rays of the sun absorbing into the flesh of your bicep, your thigh, your stomach: the fleshy parts. Breathe. Can you let your full attention rest with the sensations of your body, its pleasures and its pains? Can you love your own flesh, and the flesh of the land, the way you might adore a human lover?
If That Which You Seek You Do Not Find Within, You Will Never Find It Without
You might not know it, but you have just learned some of the mysteries of Anderson Faery. Hold them with care, cherish them, and let them unfold in your life.
May it be so.
Those who are seeking more information about Faery witchcraft and the writings of the Andersons are invited to join the Seekers of Faery Google group.
Those of us who identify as Faery share, among many other things, a statement of principles of conduct and affirmations about what the Tradition is, who can teach it, and how. One of those principles reads, “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.” The two clauses that make up this statement establish a balance between autonomy and accountability, where neither one trumps the other, but are seen as part of an integral ethical whole.
I’ve heard it said that, unlike some forms of modern Pagan spirituality, Faery lacks a guiding set of ethical principles. This is, of course, nonsense. To be sure, we do lack anything as pithy and quotable as the Wiccan Rede or the Ten Commandments, but I would suggest that, taken together as a unified whole, the powers and principles encapsulated in the Iron and Pearl Pentacles form the basis of a truly Faery system of ethics or moral philosophy. The trick is, of course, that they are the basis of that philosophy, not an explicit statement of that philosophy, nor a collection of instructions on how to enact it. As with so much else, one must do the work of putting it together oneself, or with the help of one’s teachers and fellow students and initiates. (That can be a pain in the ass, to be sure, but anyone who says that Faery is “easy” or “convenient” is lying to you, and shouldn’t be trusted.)
The Faery Pentacles are multifaceted, fulfilling multiple roles within the practice of Faery, and I won’t presume here to give instruction on the use of these most holy symbols, meditative tools, and complex magical sigils. I will restrain myself to mentioning that one of the points of the Pearl Pentacle—and, therefore, one of the key principles of Faery—is named sometimes as Liberty, sometimes as Power. I’m quite sure most folks interested in Faery are familiar with both concepts. I’m equally sure that most readers have an idiosyncratic and deeply nuanced definition of, and relationship with, those concepts. While I’m focussing on the point as Liberty, I want to keep us aware of its equally valid identity as Power; indeed, as mentioned later, an awareness of the relationship between Power and Liberty can usefully inform how we approach either concept.
What I mean when I use a conceptual term like “liberty” is not, and cannot be, identical to what you mean by that same term; even if we agree on the denotative meaning, our individual personalities and histories will give us connotative meanings that cannot be equated. I do think it’s reasonable, though, to start with agreed-upon denotative meanings and work from there. More than reasonable, I think it’s necessary. We need to talk about liberty, autonomy, sovereignty, and accountability: what those words mean, how they’re related, and why understanding those ideas is important, not only for Faery, but for life in general. The trouble is, these are pretty heavyweight concepts, better suited to university-level philosophy courses (or late-night pub sessions) than to necessarily-brief blog posts. Nevertheless, if we’re to have any real grasp of what Faery looks like in practice, of how to walk as a Witch in the real world of actions and choices and responsibilities, we need to understand them as well as we know the sound of our own hearts beating.
Westphalia is a region of Germany known for producing camper vans. It’s also known as the place where, in 1648, three treaties were signed in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück. At the time, Europe was in the midst of throwing, not one, but two wars (designated “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Eighty Years’ War” by historians) which were ravaging the populace and destabilizing the whole region. These three treaties, collectively known as the “Peace of Westphalia,” ended both of them.
They also created the modern political world in which we live, move, and have our being.
To unpack that a bit: the Peace of Westphalia established the concept of “the state” as an independent entity with total and unquestioned control over its own internal affairs, free from any external influence. In the Westphalian system, each state is equal to all others, no matter how great or small, and no state is permitted to impose its will on another merely by dint of force. This concept, referred to as “sovereignty,” became a central component of international law in Europe and, later, throughout the world.
Sovereignty is a tricksy concept. It seems quite simple on its surface: “supreme power or authority,” as the Oxford Dictionary would have it. The nuances are where it becomes interesting, and harder to nail down. Following Westphalia, the term took on a particular set of connotations: independence, freedom from coercion, absolute control over one’s own actions and interests. Sovereignty is also applied to people at times, often people wearing funny hats: emperors, kings, bishops, and the like. The meaning is quite the same: a sovereign is someone over whom no one else has power, someone who has total and final control over their own actions and lives. When speaking of a head of state, or (as some Christians do) of a Supreme Being, it carries with it the implication of control over the lives of everyone under that individual’s power, as well.
It’s a compelling idea, as you’d expect from anything that’s been the core of modern geopolitics for going on 400 years. At its best, sovereignty supplies the logical foundations for self-determination and resistance, enabling a small nation to tell to a larger nation, “No, you may not invade us and take our goods, our land, or our lives, because we are us and they are ours.” At its worst, it tacitly supports the worst atrocities the state can bring to bear on its own people, as in the U.S. massacre and genocide of Native Americans, or the Nazi genocide of German Jews.
So, a bit of a mixed bag, as it were.
Autonomy is similarly tricksy and complex. The word, from the Greek αὐτο (auto, self) + νόμος (nomos, law), literally means “self-legislating,” as in “being a law unto oneself.” In ethics, it refers to the ability of an individual to make unhindered, un-coerced choices. Like sovereignty, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Deriving in great part from the work of Immanuel Kant, autonomy specifically refers to an individual’s ability to make moral choices: to choose to act in a manner consistent with an objective or outside moral standard, regardless of any desire to the contrary, precisely because that choice is consistent with the moral standard. To be autonomous, in other words, is to have moral agency, to be able to choose to do the right thing… even if you don’t necessarily want to.
In modern parlance, autonomy has taken on some of the characteristics of sovereignty, to the point that many people equate the two. For the purposes of this essay, however, I suggest that they are quite different things: related in their approach to questions of power, coercion, and self-determination, but ultimately referring to two different categories of entity: states (to include autocephalous entities such as churches) and individual people. Simply put, only states (and heads of states, who are effectively the State personified) have sovereignty. Likewise, only people can have autonomy.
“What’s the difference,” you may well ask, “and what the hell does any of this have to do with Faery?” Valid and valuable questions, both of them.
Sovereign Westphalian states exist in relationship to one another, but as separate entities without interconnectedness; in other words, they may have foreign policies and treaties with their allies, but their internal affairs and sovereign conduct are intrinsically isolated from the opinion and coercion of other states, even their allies. This is why, for instance, the United States can criticise other countries for their shabby treatment of children or the environment, but has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Kyoto Protocol, the tossers. They’re sovereign, which means they can do as they bloody well like within their own borders, even when doing so ultimately hurts everyone else.
Autonomy, by contrast, exists in the context of an interconnected moral universe. I can choose to act or to refrain from action, to speak or to remain silent, based on my estimation of the ethical weight of the choice, which necessarily incorporates the effect of my words or actions, or of my silence or inaction, on the world around me. Autonomy requires responsibility as an intrinsic component of moral agency. In other words, there is no autonomy without accountability. Thus, whatever autonomy means, one thing it cannot mean is “license,” defined as “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, without regard for the outcomes of my actions.”
South Park references aside, I hope the relation of all this philosophical blather to Faery is beginning to come clear.
What we’re talking about when we talk about “autonomy” is not merely Liberty, but the interrelation and interconnection of Liberty with all the other points of the Pearl Pentacle, and with Power, its own other name and its corresponding point in the Iron Pentacle. Liberty is an essential core principle of a truly Faery ethic… but no greater than any of the other points. It does not trump Knowledge and Wisdom, nor Love and Law, and without them it becomes nothing more than license, which is not a magical virtue, no matter what that one pseudo-Thelemite guy at the pub meet tried to tell you, all the while staring at your ass and offering to buy you drinks. In fact, even Aleister Crowley—that noted proponent of license, impropriety, and Doing What Thou Wilt—made it quite clear in his writings that there was a bloody great difference between “doing one’s True Will” and “doing whatever the hell you want.” Faery can, and should, have at least as solid a grasp on that distinction as Crowley did.
Blessedly, we do… and characteristically, perhaps even frustratingly, it doesn’t express well as a sound-bite. If I have learnt anything at all about Faery (an open question, surely, but go with me on this), it’s that Faery is about relationships, about being in relationship: with Gods, with spirits, with our kinfolk, with our families and friends and neighbors, with the worlds around us and within us.
A central part of the work of being in relationship is being aware of how what I say and do affects those around me, and accepting responsibility for that: accountability, or as some would say, “owning it.” Sometimes, owning our words and actions means apologising and attempting to make amends. Other times, it means arguing, negotiating, or standing on our principles and refusing to budge, even in the fact of conflict with those we love. Sometimes, it’s mildly uncomfortable. Others, it’s excruciating, or joyful, or dull drudgery. In all cases, it’s about being authentically we you are, exercising moral agency, and accepting responsibility for what that means.
Accountability is the other half of autonomy, without which there can be no autonomy. Lacking accountability, the individual believes itself to be sovereign, as a state or a Supreme Being is sovereign, and inflates its own ego to the point of collapse (or prolapse, if you like). From there, everything else—magic, relationships, personality itself—follows suit. Accountability is what connects us to the world around us, what enables the very relationships that lie at the heart of Faery. To whom are we accountable? Why, to those with whom we’re in relationship: Gods, spirits, our kith and kin, the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we treat with them, we do so with the force of our very beings, and in so doing, we make ourselves accountable for what we do. This is why our oaths are sacred, why our words are imbued with power and meaning, why our actions cause change far beyond the range of our sight: because through them, we are accountable. If we are not accountable, we betray our words and actions, and the power leaks out of them as through a hole in our cup.
In the context of Faery, let’s look again at that statement from the beginning: “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.”
Viewed through the lens of autonomy and accountability, as defined above, this statement begins to unfold to us. After all, I cannot make a choice that changes the world without, y’know, changing the world. Of course, some choices are more impactful than others, and affect others’ choices to a greater degree.
Let’s say, for instance, that I decide to eat an orange. No one else may eat that orange, but that’s unlikely to cause much strife even in my home, where we lurve oranges. If there are no other oranges in the house, I can always pop out to market and pick some up. However, should I be amongst a group of friends when I decide to, say, spoil the new Star Wars film, my behaviour would get me tossed out on my ear, and rightly so. In both cases, I am accountable to those with whom I am in relationship, and to the fact that my choices affect theirs. If I eat the last orange, I merely need to pick up more oranges at market, but if I choose to spoil a movie (or book, or whatever) for someone, I’ve permanently ruined an experience for them, which is potentially an unforgivable offense. At the very least, it reveals me to be a churlish boor, and I’d have no leg to stand on if they chose not to invite me to future engagements… or to take a poke at me, for that matter.
So, then, how much more so with Faery? What if I wish to publicly reveal some shared material of the tradition considered by other initiates, folk I consider “kin,” to be oathbound? Or, if not oathbound, then “merely” sacred, to be held in confidence and secrecy? What if I should suggest to students, seekers, or other interested parties that my particular, idiosyncratic take on Faery is normative, and that Faery who practice in some other way are somehow beyond the pale? What if I decide to charge students money to be “initiated” into Faery, or to demand sexual favors from students, or to dox my fellow initiates, publishing their names and personal details for the world to see? When someone (or, more likely, several someones) comes to me with criticisms, grievances, even outright anger, how should I receive that?
Well, if we are in relationship to one another, as suggested by the term “kin,” then I am accountable to them. If it is my claim that we are part of the same tradition, I owe it to them—I am obliged—to hear their words, to consider their counsel openly and honestly, and to allow that counsel to inform the choices I make. If someone with whom I am in a relationship tells me that my choices are impeding or harming their own choices, I have a responsibility to take that seriously, to consider the possibility that I am behaving in an immoral and unethical fashion, and to modify my behaviour accordingly.
Because at the end of the day, as a wise woman once said to me, we are the choices we make and the stories we tell. The choices we make show us what kind of people we are; the stories we tell shape the choices we believe we have, and put those choices into some kind of context. If my story is that I’m wholly independent, beholden to no-one and nothing—save, perhaps, the Gods—then my choices I perceive will be limited in scope, and will tend to reinforce that worldview. If I see myself as sovereign, as hermetically isolated from other initiates, I am denying our kinship, spinning a story in which we have no relationship, and in which I’m therefore not accountable for how my choices affect theirs.
At the risk of belaboring an obvious point: that’s magic. It’s a spell… or, if you prefer, it’s a glamour, an illusion. It’s illusory, because sovereignty is a delusion. What we have, instead, is Liberty: power and agency. We have autonomy. We exist in a moral context, in relationships with others of our lineage and with the world around us. Our choices change the world, and affect the choices others can make, which makes us accountable.
At our initiation into Faery, we formally acknowledge and accept both our autonomy and our accountability, each as part and parcel of the other. However, being an initiate doesn’t grant autonomy; we have it merely by being human. As such, it shouldn’t require an oath to enforce accountability. All it should take is a basic level of consideration for others: Say “please” and “thank you.” Don’t steal somebody else’s things. Ask before you use them. Don’t spoil the movie. Share nicely, and without pouting. You know, the things we expect children to learn before they leave primary school.
After all, if we cannot be at least that accountable, if we cannot own our own words and actions, however do we expect to treat with spirits, Gods, or our own shadows?
In the future, this blog will feature a series of essays from multiple authors, examining and expanding on the 2011 Faery statement of principles. Of these principles, “We do not charge for teaching the core of the Faery tradition” receives the most public attention, perhaps because among the principles, it is the most concrete and easy to grasp. In that way, I think this principle has overshadowed other parts of the statement that were intended to have equal or greater weight. In light of this attention, I chose to address the statement’s last principle first.
Although our opinions are diverse (with some having a more liberal and others a stricter view), many of those who embrace the statement of principles affirm that a witch can ethically charge and accept barter for a wide range of magical services. These may include, but are not necessarily limited to:
Spiritual direction or counseling sessions
Short-term in-person teaching of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
Writings and instructional videos of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
Long-term teaching of herbalism, personal development, occult philosophy and history, astrology, traditional medicine, bodywork, or other knowledge that may inform but is not formally part of an initiatory Craft tradition
As a group, our commitment to offering initiatory training without monetary obligation is rooted in our own experiences of economic instability and hardship and those of our loved ones. Unlike so many of the other occult innovators of the twentieth-century, Victor and Cora Anderson were not born into economic privilege. Their young adulthood was lived during the struggles of the Depression and World War II, and both experienced the death of close loved ones during childhood. As a young married couple, they experienced profound poverty and even, at times, hunger. Although the Andersons struggled financially throughout their lives, they taught their students free of charge. Especially during the Andersons’ later years, those who benefited from their work showed their gratitude in many ways, including gifts of food and money, visits, errands, and other support.
Some of those who embrace the 2011 Faery statement of principles are blessed to find themselves in comfortable economic circumstances now but have struggled in the past. Among us are those have experienced major illness, or supported families during the major illness of a spouse; who have struggled after a divorce or death, sometimes as single parents; who have lost jobs and unsuccessfully sought work for months on end while bills mounted; who have pursued advanced education and took on heavy debt, only to graduate in a contracted job market; and who have lived on a meager pension or disability payments. Some of us still struggle in those circumstances and are quietly helped by loved ones. We know that difficult times come to many individuals and families, especially in the political and economic climate we find ourselves in today, and we share a commitment to provide aid to each other and our communities during times of crisis.
Although some of us paid teachers for parts of our training, many of us were taught without financial obligation and fed in our teachers’ homes, even when our teachers themselves were struggling. Some of us were trained during financially difficult periods in our lives when we could not have afforded to pay for training. As teachers, we do not want the financial situations of either our students or ourselves to create barriers between us. With the generosity of the Andersons and our other teachers in mind, but knowing that our resources are finite, we have committed only to teach as many students as we can meaningfully welcome into our homes as family. This practice helps to create the permanent, stable, emotionally intimate relationships that are essential to our Craft.
We celebrate those among us who make a living teaching knowledge that, while not part of the Craft itself, informs our understanding of it: poetry, literature, religious studies, ethics, history, anthropology, psychology, biology, physics, and more. We do not, however, consider teaching to have a higher status than other kinds of work. Among us are health care providers, craftspeople, workers in the service industry, administrators, and many others—all of whom bring their insights as witches to relationships with co-workers, clients, and the public. We affirm that all these professions can be the right work of a witch, who creates a subtle but pervasive positive impact on hir community.
May we all be prosperous and surrounded by loving kin; may we all find our right work.
[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.
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.
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.
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.]
And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul with power.
— from Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland
Witches generally speaking work in small groups and have a certain anti-authoritarian, anarchistic bent. The latter is especially true of traditions like Faery which have no effective hierarchy beyond “initiate/non-initiate”* but it remains a trait of even (relatively) more hierarchical traditions. As people experiment with more “churchy” organizational structures, that tendency may wane; however I think that inevitably the “witchiness” of a given group will wane along with it. In his post“When Wicca is Not Wicca”Jason Mankey says “Wicca works best in covens, and not groups of 200 people.” This is emphatically also true of other forms of religious witchcraft, possibly more so. But why? And what do hierarchy, authority, and group size actually have to do with one another?
Part of the answer I believe lies in the monkeysphere, also known asDunbar’s number. This is an anthropological theory which states that there is a practical limit, determined by the size of the neocortex, to the number of others that a human being or other primate can perceive as distinct individuals; therefore, a limit to how many individuals with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Groups above that number tend to either break apart or develop restrictive rules and norms in order to maintain stability, along with ever-more-authoritarian means of enforcing those rules. That number for human beings is somewhere between 150 and 250, depending on a number of factors including how much outside pressure there is to force cohesion and how much the members communicate and interact.
Wait a minute… I just said that witchcraft works better in small groups, much smaller than 150. Dunbar’s number is the upper limit of any kind of group cohesion, including the kind between neighbors and tradition members. It’s worth noting in this context that not long after the number of Feri initiates passed 250, the tradition split. The level of intimacy required between coven members in order to functionasa coven… in order to do good magic… is far greater. I would say, an order of magnitude greater. It just so happens that if you reduce Dunbar’s number by one order of magnitude, you get 15… which is darn close to the traditional number of 13 witches in a coven.
Well and good. This is a rationale for why witchcraft traditions are (dis)organized the way they are, and a counter to the arguments for bigger organizations and paid clergy (which by necessity go together). Note that I am not saying that Pagans can’t have large organizations or church-type structures, if they wish. What I am saying though is that it is a trade-off, and that if you choose a hierarchical group with by-laws and dues and so forth you are choosing not to have the kind of intimacy with one another that is an inherent feature of smaller groups. I am also saying that once you do that, it’s going to become less and less like witchcraft, and more and more like Baptists.
I don’t have one single thing against Baptists as such. But there is a reason why I am no longer one, and part of it is that my current religion feels more like home. I am respected and seen in some important ways that I did not experience in the religious tradition I was raised in, despite their genuine efforts to reach out to all members of the congregation as a matter of both theology and practice. I would like to suggest here that it’s possible that one of the most significant things which create the difference between a Pagan group and a Christian one is not actually theology but structure. That is because most people, unless they take it up as a hobby, are fairly fuzzy about theology, but everyone participates in the way their particular religious tradition is structured… by necessity. Which in turn shapes both behavior and ideas.
The notion of the monkeysphere and its corollary with regard to coven size also points to some valuable insights about how witchcraft groups should work: spending non-focused social time together as a group, one on one time with each other as individuals, talking out how the group as a whole feels about various issues. Of course, all that requires time, and some months it’s all my coven can do to get together for ritual, but on the other hand the majority of our “ritual” time is actually spent eating and talking…
That intimacy is important for its own sake, but it is not “just” social time. We humans are social creatures; it defines us. The relative lack of rules and enforcement in a small, intimate group, where boundaries of behavior are negotiated between individuals of equal standing, means that such a group has the potential for reaching an ideal balance between compassion and freedom possible nowhere else; the addition of religious ritual has the added bonus of fostering group cohesion without having to enforce additional constraints. And because we are not just talking about a quirk of religious witchcraft traditions but inherent qualities associated with being human, all of this also has implications for society as a whole. “How can we best be human with one another?” is perhaps the most crucial question we can ask. How can we retain that humanity when, as we must, we are dealing with the larger world? I think ironically the answer lies in those small groups, where we can be seen most fully as ourselves, and learn to see others most fully as well.
*I know some people have attempted to assert or form a hierarchy with wand colors indicating rungs, however I am here to tell you that it never actually worked.
“To know, to dare, to will and to be silent.” These are the four powers of the Sphinx within Hermetics, which were written by Eliphas Levi and found their way into modern Witchcraft and Wicca (as so much Hermetic material has). They are well known but often less understood. We can surmise that “to know” is to be learned and to gain knowledge, “to dare” is to go forth and do with courage, “to will” is to utilize one’s True Will to create change (magic) as well as to withstand the dangers of the Spirits, and “to be silent” is to hold silence and not speak of one’s workings. Each of these “powers” could be an article or even a book, but for this blog I would like to focus on silence.
My own tradition of Witchcraft had a sundering in part because of the fourth Power of the Sphinx. To…Be…Silent. Some of our initiates felt strongly that the Tradition needed to be out there and ministered to the public. They had written books, were teaching publicly (some for free and some for pay) and were discussing inner secrets (though there were disagreements as to what was actually secret between lineages) on e-lists and with non-initiates. Many arguments ensued between those of us who felt that we should have never come out into public view at all and those who felt that we needed to liberate the masses from their shackles.
This argument, gentle readers, is really between the priests (be they of any faith) and the witches who walk multiple paths at once. You see, the priest desires to be of service to the community and to help the profane to enter into a state of grace and healing via his Gods or Tradition. From the priests’ cause arise temples, books, public litany, services and a priest caste dedicated to enlightening the masses. Noble to be sure, but the work of priests has nothing to do with witchcraft, and usually they are opposed.
The witch is something else and desires liberation of self as the focus of her work, as opposed to working only on others or as a guru. The witch walks the “twixt” roads of the Spirits alone. The witch is not popular–hell, the witch is not usually liked, and that is fine because the power of the witch does not arise from the populace, it arises from the Spirits with whom she holds her vows. The witch does not sell her secrets for coin or ego gain, because the milk and breath of the Spirits themselves sustain her and allow her to live the life she so chooses. In other words, the witch may accept coin for services rendered, such as a tarot reading or a love charm for a lonely client or a curse well paid, but to sell her lore, the roads she travels, the names of her Gods, or the council of the Spirits is another matter entirely. She would dare not risk a loss of her Spirit bonds for the bondage of the church of Feri and its denizens or the shackles of false guru-hood, or be bound to the men of clay and their unabating hunger. For the witch cannot feed them; she can only walk among them, hidden in plain sight.
Unfortunately, both sides in this confusing debate shut down, and the tradition known as Feri cracked in two. There were those who felt a Mystery Tradition of Witchcraft cloaked in silence–more hidden from public view, and certainly not sold–was of utmost importance; and there were those who felt the true path was activism and work to heal and help the masses as their primary mission, as well as to share the Tradition with as many as possible in the form of a priesthood. Those of us who split away towards a more silent mystery tradition had our trust broken by the Feri Priests who took our sacred knowledge and published it, sold tickets to witch camps, sold merchandise, classes, and workshops. A whore house of our Lady was made and we wept. In the old days, a witch did not utter that she was so to anyone outside of her circle, and while times may have changed and some of us do indeed expose ourselves to the light, we here in the shadows would never dream of selling our lore, teachings, spells and secrets to the outside world.
Regardless of your opinion as to the split itself, the question still remains about actual silence. To be silent. What are we silent about and why? And why does it matter to be silent as a Witch? Why does silence matter in magic and to the Spirits?
I was taught the lore of the night and of liminal spaces, and that to be silent was of the utmost importance to traversing these roads. I learned that to speak of a spell before its fruition was to kill it, and later I learned that most people, because they are not of our witch-blood, do not understand our ways and indeed deeply fear what we do. This is because we as witches walk the path of the Opposer and of the Ophidian bifurcated mysteries. We are not here to convince anyone of our rights or to change their minds because we have had a deeply profound experience. We are here as witches to work on ourselves through transgression, to free oneself from oneself, and to connect with our Gods and Spirits. The more we keep in silence, the more we can do our work without the interference of the curiosity seeker or the people who wish to destroy us or steal our secrets.
I never share my inner workings or profound experiences with the Spirits. That, of course, is my choice, but I also follow the magicians and witches who came before me in regards to keeping silent. I have no problem with magical folk making a living from their arts, actually. I never did. My trust to keep silent was not unilateral in Feri, and as I saw myself and those who felt as I do lose more and more ground, I began to realize the importance of silence even more.
I used to argue and beg and try to convince my brethren who were teaching the Tradition for money that this was wrong and they were misguided, but after a time I began to realize that my energy was in vain. After a painful few years, I realized what had happened was that Feri had hived off into a Church with dogma and structure and exercises open to all, where priests were charging for entrance–a completely separate thing from the mystery tradition of witchcraft that it began as. To be sure, the priests have their mysteries and their magic, but a mystery tradition of witchcraft has nothing to do with profit or ministering to the masses.
The Sufis speak of such sundering, and I suppose it was only a matter of time that it would happen here as the tradition grew past its original few covens and into hundreds and hundreds of people. The priests of Feri have chosen to steward the masses and to shepherd them toward healing, and that is okay. We all have our parts to play and paths to walk. It is different from those of us who choose to walk the twisted and uncanny path of witchcraft alone. In walking this path, silence is probably one of the most important skills that a Witch and Magician can cultivate. So, I looked more deeply into why silence is important to the witch in regards to her inner traditions and lore, and I want to share what I have discovered about silence with you.
Why Silence is Important
Why would we wish to keep such amazing mysteries hidden? Why, when we have discovered such liberation and magic, would we not wish to share these things with the world, to lift them up and to help them out of their degradation? (Insert pamphlet of every major religion here, and NO thank you!) Here are my answers to those questions as a Traditional Witch.
The importance of silence in terms of keeping lore, or even keeping silent the fact that one was a magician or a Witch, was not lost on the Ancients. Most of the Mystery Cults of yore were passed orally, and to this day we know little of what actually happened in many of them, other than they were ‘there’ along with a few tidbits. A great example of these cults were the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, which were some type of agricultural and immortality cult and were regarded with respect and importance by the local and uninitiated people. Of course the populace knew that there was a Mystery tradition happening, but the inner lore and secrets were vigorously and violently guarded. There was a four-tiered system that preserved the inner mysteries for a select and learned few, but allowed many more of the masses to be involved and participate on a more surface level. Because of the rigors of entering the inner circle of initiates, those involved were less likely to spill the beans because they had worked so hard to attain their positions. However, it was not just a ‘mystical cool kids club’ that kept them silent. Many of the philosophers of the day such as Pythagoras (who was involved in a mystery mathematical cult), Socrates, Plato, Aristoxenus and Ammonius all knew and wrote about the importance of being silent for magical purposes. There was at the time an older doctrine of silence prior to ‘The Four Powers of the Sphinx’ called “The Mecurial Doctrine of Hermes,” which had five principles and may well have influenced Levi’s work. Below are the translated fragments.
And Mercury saith:………….
They were as follows:
That sharing holy matters with profane minds pollutes them:
“You may call Ammon; but summon no one else, lest a discourse which treats of the holiest of themes, and breathes the deepest reverence, should be prophaned by the entrance and presence of a throng of listeners…” (Asclepius prologue 1b [Scott])
That profane minds simply cannot grasp holy doctrine and often will mock those who preach it and are incited by the holy to commit violence or a greater evil because of lack of understanding:
“But avoid converse with the many…. the many will think you to be one who is laughed at… are never friends… and can urge bad men to more wickedness…. beware of talking to them, in order that, being in ignorance they may be less wicked.” (Stobaei Hermetica [Scott])
Silence allows the divine enlightenment (magic or spell work or inner guidance) to occur:
“And now, my son, speak not, but keep a solemn silence; so that the mercy will come down on us from God.” (Corpus Hermeticum 13.8a [Scott])
That it is futile to express the inexpressible:
“For there is, my son, a secret doctrine, full of holy wisdom, concerning Him who alone is lord of All and… whom to declare is beyond the power of man.” (Fragments 12 [Scott])
That silence stops and protects against mistranslation because the words themselves have power:
“Translation will greatly distort the sense of writings, and cause much obscurity. Expressed in our native language, the teaching conveys its meaning clearly; for the very quality of the sounds; and when the Egyptian words are spoken, the force of the things signified words in them…” (Corpus Hermeticum 16.1b-2 [Scott])
Interestingly, these sentiments are also expressed by Jesus when he states to his disciples that they should “understand the mysteries of the Word of God, and that the others (the people) should receive the parables only” (Matthew 13:10-4). And who could forget the famous line “cast not thy pearls unto swine” (Matthew 7:6), or the wonderful phrase from Psalms, “I have hid the words in my heart so I do not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:11).
We have here a later mirroring of the ancient Greek philosophers and magicians in Christian lore as to keep silent the mysteries from the masses and to keep silent the messages from the Gods themselves lest you incite their wrath. Virgil says of the Sibyl, “The Goddess comes, hence, hence, and ye prophane; The prophet cries, and from her grove refrain.” In other words, outside of the presence of the Goddess, keep your mouth shut. The mysteries, whether passed down as lore in a tradition or specifically from the Goddess to you, are meant for you alone at that particular time. Why would you reveal such intimacies to the world? Why risk angering the Spirits you have worked so hard to be in relationship with?
The obfuscation and disguising of lore in plain sight, which was to be opened up only from master to disciple, is found in many traditions from Masonic Lodges to lineages of Traditional Witchcraft. Sufi masters famously teach through story, which while read by the masses makes little or no sense or comes off as humorous, but read or taught ‘with eyes to see’ leads to enlightenment. There have also been many cryptic images from various private sources that hold clues from Traditional Witchcraft societies, Free Masonry and other magical Societies such as the A:.A.:. Some of these familiar and unfamiliar images in Traditional Witchcraft were collected and are now housed in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall. Each “image” has many meanings and lore behind it and may show spell components, ritual tools and the rituals themselves, all ‘hidden in plain sight” and relating to Traditional Witchcraft. Often the these entries include images known to Traditional Witchcraft such as the pentacle, the pin and nail, stang, crown, and various stellar lettering, but they also include (in code) how to use such items. This “code” would have been passed orally within a covine to ensure that were the images to be seen they would be unintelligible. Below is one such image of a magic circle and spell and a very certain Spirit to be called. Folks learned in ceremonial magic will know one of the Spirits here as his name is below!
Symbols of Traditional Witchcraft. A ritual in code. The Occult Reliquary, Three Hands Press, 2010.
These images will conjure reactions and feelings differently for each person who sees them, but they are indeed specific to Lodge societies and Witchcraft. To the casual observer or even student, they can be cryptic or oversimplified.
Another reason for silence is that the sharing of a working or your sacred altars or spaces with the masses opens you up to questions you might not be prepared to answer from people who definitely do not understand what you are doing. A simple example of this in my Tradition is that we do not believe in or adhere to the ‘Wiccan Rede’. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to explain myself or deal with angry Wiccans about this issue. Even trying to explain the history of how the Rede came into modern Wicca with its Hermetic and Thelemic and Christian roots incites more anger. These days, unless specifically asked, I tend not to try to convince people because they usually are too closed down to really hear.
One more good reason to be silent is to avoid negativity coming your way. Even if a person is not skilled at hexing, most folks can send negative energy at you, and this is difficult to deal with and causes you to have to engage in more cleansing and protection work instead of just doing your work. Exhausting to be sure! There are magicians and workers out there who are skilled, though, and who may wish to interfere with your work for many different reasons. Best to not let them know what you are up to, because then you can find yourself in a really difficult situation. You may also be working for clients who have had a curse laid on them by another witch, and you would not want the other witch to know you were working for said client because they would definitely interfere.
Then there is the problem of the “State” getting involved, such as the legal authorities, etc. As much as we like to say that we live in a “free” society here in the US and we have “religious freedom,” we are still living in a Christian nation and among Christians who make up the majority of said nation. Many people still have a fear of Witchcraft in their deep collective unconscious, and rhetoric such as “Suffer not a Witch to live” as read in the Bible or “If thou meet a Pagan kill them immediately” as read in the Koran certainly does not help. You could be lucky enough to run into the atheist government employee who does not think you are evil but thinks you are nuts. However, such encounters could still cause you problems. Best to walk among them and leave them at ease so you can get to your work. People have lost jobs and children because of prejudices against Pagans and Witches and Wiccans.
Speaking and telling of your workings also diffuses the power of them, especially during their process. I knew a Hoodoo Rootworker once who told me that the inner lore of his work could only be passed once. That is, he would lose all of his own power to do these magical things if he shared them, and so would only pass his power and tricks to the right student when he was ready to die. Makes you a bit more discerning to choose a student, does it not? Think of silence as being like a pressure building and building and then erupting with force and power. Wait, breathe, be silent, build power, release, have gratitude. Speaking of your workings not only can undermine them from the outside, but from the inside too, because your mind is always battling your True Will. This is the constant battle of the magician and the Witch, that is, to keep their minds flexible so that they can easily access a magical mindset. This is why so many Witchcraft rituals are filled with symbols: it is so we can bypass the mind and let the energy flow. It is also why we do so many exercises of purification and pattern breaking. We know we can be our own worst enemies too and that those little “you can’t” statements of the internal mind are very damaging. The symbols of the Craft are powerful indeed.
Symbols are important messages to our Fetch or Child Self, as it is known in my tradition, and are found in many occult places. Like the above examples in the image of Traditional Witchcraft, so too does that ancient tradition of Alchemy have its many secrets bound in iconography and symbol, both visible and yet hidden in plain sight. Many of the beautiful Renaissance and Medieval depictions of alchemical workings were known only to the initiates of its orders. Solve Et Coagula. The transmutation and complex change. Lead into Gold… physical gold or the transformation of the magician from base to enlightened…? A marriage of magic, science, will and Spirit. Can you imagine if you were to record all of your magical workings in an alchemical or pictorial code known only to your inner coven or circle? Would it not be something beautiful to behold in cryptic iconography and symbolism and a wonderful way to teach your students? Something to inspire the Fetch and the deeper selves….
Commonly known symbols in Alchemy.
Often mistakenly thought of as the Christian Devil, Baphomet is a great example of an alchemical process depicted in pictorial code. Each symbol above has a complex meaning… Solve et Coagula…
Of course, it is also important to keep our confidences with the Spirits and the Gods as well. They give their secrets and power to those who honor and work with them, and many of them do not like it when these secrets are shared with those who are not initiated or of your inner circle. The price of Hubris is always punishment from the Gods, and those Gods can come up with nasty teachings tailored just for you. You may have just had the MOST intense life changing experience in ritual with Hecate, and you may see things in a new light and wish to share and let others know ‘the Good News’. Please don’t. These things are especially for you from Her, tailored and suited for you at that time. My blood may run differently and my roads may lead elsewhere, and I am glad you had a great experience, but most likely it is not for me. If you desire to teach your inner mysteries and lore and transmit these things, let it be with one or a few screened students who you are sure are a good fit. Witchcraft and mysticism is not about healing or ‘getting better’. That is the road of religion, and I have no problem with that, it is just not the same thing.
Some people do feel called to share and teach publicly. I too love to teach and I write about many occult and magical topics, but of the inner workings of my tradition I will never speak or sell. There is a lot out there to research and share, but other things must be kept private, especially if you are part of a closed initiatory group or if instructed by a Spirit to do so. Also keep in mind why you would share some things and not others and the repercussions of your sharing. This can be a personal choice but it is also a serious one.
These are some interesting points to think about in regards to silence, and of course you will choose to do as you wish. I long ago abandoned the idea that I could ‘change anyone’s mind’ in regards to my views and experiences of Witchcraft. Take what you will upon the path. As I look, though, to the wisdom of the ancients and those who came before me as magicians and Witches, I see a long tradition of silence and of only sharing with those worthy. Make sure that those who you choose to share your most precious pearls with are indeed worthy of them, and be wary of those who share with anyone what they claim to be the wisdom of the Ages. Walk in magic and beauty, and let the mysteries reveal themselves to you in their own time and your own time. To force them is to beg for disaster.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Llewellyn Press. Donald Tyson Edition, 1994.
Davies, M. and Lynch, A. “Keepers of the Flame. Interviews with Elders of Traditional Witchcraft in America.” Olympian, 2001.
Marraccini, A. “Open Secrets: Alchemical-Hermetic Imagery in the Ripley Scrolls.” Charming Intentions: Occultism, Magic and the History of Art-Select Papers-Cambridge. Abraxis Special Issue #1. FulgarPress, 2013.
Schulke, D. The Occult Reliquary. Three Hands Press; The Museum of Witchcraft, 2010.
[Originally published in Witch Eye #9; republished by permission of the author.]
At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with just how ornery and fractious we appear to be from the outside. We hear it often enough. And it’s true; we ain’t exactly sweetness and light. Not too long ago, someone remarked to me, “You Feri-types aren’t quite what I expected. I mean, most of the folks I come across in Witchcraft groups these days try to act like nothing ever goes wrong, like they’re too ‘spiritually evolved’ for anything like that. Y’all don’t seem to mind being, well, openly quick-tempered. You’re a pretty irascible bunch!” I thought that was putting it rather politely.
A couple of days later, a student of mine complained that when she worked with the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, she “felt irascible.”
Irascible. It’s a curious word; you don’t really hear it used in conversation very often. It’s a little archaic and old-fashioned.
Sometimes, I find myself caught by a word like that. Maybe I’ve never heard it before. Maybe I have, possibly quite often, but never really gave it much thought. Part of it is just the way a certain word feels in my mouth when I say it. There I was, with “irascible”. What did it mean, exactly? Where did it come from? Was its appearance in my little corner of the Universe just one of those things, or was there something to be learned here?
Words are magic. Words are something we humans use to create our world, carving packets of energy out of the universal froth, investing them with meanings and significance, and linking them up in webs and patterns of association and reflection. The magical power in words lies not only in their ability to focus our energy compactly, but also in their inherent fluidity. By changing our words around, we can change our inner perception of the world and thus how we experience it. Perceiver and perceived create each other; change the nature of the perceptions, and the ripple effect flows outward into the world and creates change there, too. Like I said: magic.
Looking into how words come to mean what they do is kind of psychic archaeology. The ways in which a particular word has evolved, adapted, and mutated reveals a lot about people and and how we try to understand the world and ourselves across large swathes of time. Working on “irascible” took me on an interesting little trip; it’s part of a whole constellation of words whose meanings are particularly curious in light of things Feri-esque.
The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, provided the following: “Prone to outbursts of temper, easily angered…” It originally entered Middle English via the Late Latin word “irascibilis”, from “ira-”, meaning “anger”. The root-source is in the Indo-European root “eis”.
All the words in Indo-European languages that grew from this little root have do with passion. As above, Latin got “ira-”, which gave English words like irate, ire, and, of course, irascible.
From a suffixed zero-grade form, *is(e)ro, it shows up in Greek as “hieros”, meaning “powerful, holy”. It denoted a state of being literally “filled up with the Divine.”
In Old High German, we find “isarn/isan”, which migrated into Old English as “isern”, eventually becoming “iren” — iron! Linguists believe that the source of this is a (possibly) Celtic word, *isarno-, meaning “holy metal”. Iron came from thunderstones, bolts of star-stuff that fell to Earth in a blaze of light and fury. Nowadays, we call them meteorites.
Another turn that “eis” took in Greek is a suffixed o-grade form, which replaced the initial “e” with an “o”; this gets us *ois-tro-, or “madness”, and gave English things like estrus and estrogen. Poke into ancient Greek religion a little bit, and you’ll find that the Greeks considered madness to be the touch of the Divine; the direct experience of divine power could be enough to send a person raving into the night, even if only temporarily. Among others, the Maenades, Bacchoi and Delphic Pythia spring to mind.
All this linguistic geekery aside, where does this leave us? Whatever the word’s history, people who call us irascible are not usually referring to how “filled with the holy” we seem! Why are we such grumpy Fae, so “prone to outbursts, easily angered”? What’s up with that?
First of all, anger has a bad reputation which it doesn’t really deserve. To be sure, out of control anger has caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering. That, however, has less to do with anger itself than with how we deal with it. Anger is innate, hardwired into our systems by millions of years of evolution. Anger is a response to having our boundaries, physical or otherwise, violated in some way. We tend to feel anger when someone crosses an important boundary in a way that makes us feel threatened, a way that we feel is an attempt to co-opt or diminish our autonomy as beings. In short, anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.
There is nothing inherently wrong in feeling an anger-response. It’s the sentry that guards our physical and psychic integrity from attack. Healthy anger is never vicious or sadistic. Its energy is tremendously powerful. What makes the difference is what we choose to do with all that energy. Do we use it to strengthen and restore our violated boundaries in a way that is skillful and honorable, a way that reestablishes not only our own integrity, but also that of the person or persons with whom we are dealing? Or do we lash out far beyond our own energetic perimeter in a search-and-destroy mission, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of carnage behind us?
When we are grounded and centered in the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, we are alert to the signals of anger and to what they mean. We can move quickly and surely to restore our boundaries; no more, no less. To people who habitually violate others and steal their energy, this is enormously frustrating. Trying to siphon energy out of a person with strong, healthy boundaries is an exercise in utter futility. More often than not, they may try a little word-magic of their own, and accuse their target of being difficult, touchy, defensive, or just plain ol’ mean. This often works; after all, we don’t want people to think we’re mean, do we? We humans are social animals, with an innate desire to be liked. Our survival depends on being part of a group and “getting along” with the other members. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this can be used against us. How often has the admonishment to “be nice” really translated into “be controllable”?
If you’re working in the Feri Tradition, being seen as “not very nice” isn’t going to keep you up at night. Our teachings place a very strong emphasis on guarding our own life-force. Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself. In the face of that, the opinions of users, crazy-makers, and energy-suckers tend to get short shrift.
When work on the Power Point really kicks in, it’s a tremendous release. We start to see the ways in which our lives have been shaped and molded into something not of our desire, something that our souls barely even recognize. It can be the revelation of a lifetime of having our boundaries violated as a matter of course. Anger is understandable. “Nice” isn’t going to be very high on our list of things to be. Once we begin to see how much of our power we have surrendered, or even had stolen from us outright, getting royally pissed is only natural. After spending so much of our time bound up in fear of isolation and ostracism, of having the life sucked out of us by a tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts”, the experience of severing those energetic bonds can be quite the rush. A period of enjoying this new-found ability is only to be expected. In Alchemy, this phase is called “Separation”, a process of cutting through attachments that don’t contribute anything to our lives. Its correspondences include the color orange-red, the planet Mars, and, interestingly, the metal iron. The individual in Separation is a warrior of heart and spirit, sifting through the layers of their identity, keeping what works and letting go of that which does not. It’s the first place I see most people go when they really begin to grasp the Power Point. It’s cathartic, caustic, and it can be really rough on the other people in our lives, if they have no idea where it’s coming from.
It’s also really easy to get stuck there. The sense of liberation, of lightening the load, is exhilarating and enlivening. So much more juice flowing through our system, so much more energy! It can be highly addictive. It’s also only one phase of the process; if we get hooked on it, it can quickly degenerate into paranoia and simple psychic blood lust. Human history is littered with examples of people who got caught up in this energetic slicing and dicing as an end in and of itself. Having strong, healthy boundaries is good magic. Disemboweling anything that moves is not. Skillfulness in the Power Point is knowing how and when to wield that magic knife.
Feris who live from a position of being grounded and centered in their own inner place of power are always going to seem a bit cantankerous. It’s not a flaw, no matter what the energy-thieves of this world might say about it. Their meat and drink are the doormats of this world; their bane, the people who own and keep their power. So, go ahead. Be irascible, and be proud of it. I know I am.