Hereditary Witchcraft: Fact or Fiction?
“Hello, my name is Megan, and I am a hereditary* witch.” That’s what I should have said. Admittedly, this is what I should say in order to be true to my path and myself. However, instead what came out of my mouth were a few confident rumblings about me and why I’m here. I wasn’t prepared with a stunningly beautiful and completely superficial answer to give my fellow students in the Magick 101 class. I felt like a deer in the headlights, and I truly wished I could have run like one in that moment.
Some time between fear and acceptance, I realized: I can’t be the only person to ever feel this way about their own hereditary craft. In fact, I believe the reason so many are afraid to confidently own up to their own magickal heredity is because they have at some point been unnecessarily judged, and not by the ‘muggles’ who have not the knowledge nor experience to understand it. Instead, we are often judged by other members of the magickal community that our mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers helped pave the way for.
I hope in this article to explain and address the controversy of Hereditary Witchcraft, as well as establish some guidelines for up and coming witches to utilize and consider before casting judgment (better known as misguided assumptions) against a fellow witch.
Part One: Why is this a controversy?
So, what in fact makes a hereditary witch- a witch? If someone walks up to you and says, “Hi, my name is Moon Beam, and I am a hereditary witch.” do you ultimately have any reason to believe them? You could of course if it is your way of things accept everything that everybody says in regards to paganism as ultimately true, and right. Ask yourself this question: if Mary Moon Beam said she was a hedge witch, druid, budding pagan polyamorist, Crowley worshiper, or any other path- would you have then believed her? Keeping your first answers to these questions in mind, lets move forward and examine this together.
In most circumstances there is no documented way to determine whether or not a person is hereditary in their craft. There are also many variations of hereditary witchcraft, which have developed and spread throughout the world. Then there’s the fact that hereditary witchcraft in fact isn’t passed down in all cases to a biological relation. Ultimately, there are many founded reasons why a witch of the old ways may choose to pass their knowledge to a non-biological family member. Therefore, there are plenty of witches out there that were not born of another witch but were passed the necessary knowledge with the specific intent of continuing a hereditary tradition. Alright so now we know- there are two basic kinds of hereditary craft: born of, and ‘not so born of’.
To cite a specific example, what if a cousin or nephew was passed the tradition willingly? They then are given (and make a choice to accept) the same responsibility of continuing the tradition that any biological member of the family would have. All right, so, a ‘Hereditary’ witch is generally considered a person who is born of or (not so born of) a hereditary witch and chooses to accept, follow, and continue growing a pre-established tradition of witchcraft. Right? Well, sort of!
Here is even more to consider respectably: what if the act of passing on the family’s specific tradition of witchcraft skipped a generation? How about if the family tradition skipped five generations and then later re-emerged? The reality of modern hereditary witchcraft is that we all have broken branches on our family trees that we can and sometimes can’t account for, justify, or prove. Realistically, this means that many hereditary practitioners have to reforge or reform their traditions in order to fill in the missing gaps of knowledge that were not passed on.
A family tradition is typically an eclectic mix of pantheons, practices, cultures, ancestry, and of course: family. This type of tradition is constantly forming and forging, and is also often referred to specifically as a ‘family tradition’ or ‘fam-trad’ (for short) . If you hear someone referring to a family tradition, remember that they may not be hereditary- but instead could be forming a tradition to be passed on (there by establishing a new hereditary line) . Again, in order to preserve the traditions and practices that have survived the ages, many choose to pass their knowledge on to someone who is not biologically related. Therefore a family tradition can include mothers, brothers, cousins, nephews, fathers, grandfathers, and any other person considered adopted family by all members.
There are some grey areas that are tough to approach regarding both Family Traditions and Hereditary Witchcraft. I am referring to these concepts separately because they are not one in the same. Instead of backing down from explaining this portion of the great controversies surrounding hereditary witchcraft, I would like to address it by issuing a challenge to you (the reader) . Here is your job: ask your teacher, mentor, mother, grandmother, or a leader in community the following question-“Who did you learn from, and who did that person learn from?”
If you have ever done this you will find eventually one teacher, leader, elder, or great-grandmother who learned directly from someone who practiced what once was an exclusively hereditary tradition. In order to understand why some people claim or believe they are hereditary practitioners, you have to wrap your mind around the idea that during the ‘burning times’ witchcraft receded into small groups sometimes (but not always) called covens- which were considered within many traditions the equivalent of family.
We are now of course back to the idea of non-biological heredity within witchcraft. In this case scenario, a lot of practitioners were, and still in modern times, are not biologically related to the craft- but regard themselves as hereditary because they are passing on a tradition that would not survive otherwise. The biggest question in most people’s minds at this point is probably the best test of personal truth: is this still hereditary witchcraft?
Well, actually yes it is. But are the practitioners now still considered hereditary if they are receiving knowledge from a non-biological relation of a witch (a witch who has passed) who was part of a hereditary tradition? Well, no, not really- at least not in my opinion. (Though there are plenty that would probably disagree with me)
In fact, this is the very reason most people believe that hereditary witchcraft is just a big ‘myth’ and that in the modern craft it doesn’t really exist anymore. Many modern practitioners of Wicca and witchcraft seem to believe for some god-awful reason that the old hereditary traditions don’t exist, or that they shouldn’t be exclusive if they do. Worse, there seem to be a lot of preconceived notions floating about our magickal communities regarding what makes the claim of hereditary witchcraft valid or invalid.
Therefore, I have to say it: should we as witches disregard our hereditary lineages, our family lines, our traditions and the knowledge gained thereof because so many other practitioners have actually abandoned the idea that it’s valid? Or worse, because our high priestesses, friends, and fellow practitioners have told us that we are not what we claim?
Part Two: To Be A Witch is first and foremost to know yourself.
I say no, because it’s not their job to tell me who I am. It’s my job, and nobody else’s. To be a witch, means that you already know who you are, and you choose to be true to yourself in actions, words, and energy regardless of what anybody else says. To be a hereditary witch is just as great of a responsibility. There is no more and no less to learn if you are a hereditary witch. There is no more or less power and knowledge available to you if you are a hereditary practitioner.
Hereditary witches are not better, more ‘right’, greater, or even necessarily more powerful than any other witch. Hereditary witches, and practitioners of hereditary traditions should be working together to pass our knowledge on to others who are willing to know themselves and to learn the craft. Instead, too often we are battling against each other over broken lineages, huge gaps in knowledge that we are all trying to fill, and what are occasionally liars claiming heredity. Shall we walk on believing only those who have a firm pedigree should and can claim heredity within the craft?
I believe that each person who claims to be a witch should not only already know their personal sense of truth well, but also is continually reforming it through self discovery. I believe that to be a witch means that you are studying a tradition of some sort whether it is by learning the traditions of others or by birthing your own tradition from what you have learned. It is inescapable that in studying Wicca, witchcraft, or even general paganism that you will have to study someone else’s tradition- and those traditions were preserved by heredity practice to begin with. I believe that heredity is not invisible; it is what makes us who we are regardless of what that heredity is. Whether or not we like what we were taught, or from whom we came- heredity is what shapes us as human beings.
I made a choice a long time ago to honor myself as a witch because I was ready to face and embrace who I am, who I was meant to be, and who I have been. I was not handed my tradition of hereditary witchcraft on a silver platter and told to follow my mother in all that she decided was true and right. (No true witch worth her weight in wax would require their children to follow the craft as their way, because that ideal infringes upon free will.)
My decision to practice witchcraft was completely of my own volition, and of my own making. In order to learn the ways of the old witches, I had to earn it. In fact if there is one clear difference in being raised by a witch, I have to say it’s that there was always more expected of me than of the others around me. It doesn’t make me a better witch, but it does make me a better person.
In all that my mother passed to me of what she does know the most important lesson has been that with great freedom comes great knowledge, and therefore also comes great responsibility. I respect this responsibility, and I use it wisely because it’s my karma that I damage if I choose to disregard the laws of power. I know that I have a greater responsibility than some, and that what I carry is not a burden but instead a blessing.
I refuse to reject the lessons I have earned from my family as a ‘myth’ or ‘excuse’. To disregard the honor it is to be who I am, would be disregarding a deeply felt piece of my heart and spirit. I wish nothing but to further and forward the knowledge we all can gain, and yet some others have disregarded me because I claim my own heredity. I think judgments of this nature are not only astounding, but also disrespectful to the craft itself.
I have spent a great deal of time, effort, and study dedicated to the practice of witchcraft. This being said, I want it to be clear that knowledge is free but wisdom is earned. Just because you can claim a hereditary line does not mean that you ultimately are meant to do so, or even that it would be right for you to do so. Possessing a hereditary line is a tricky thing, and it doesn’t give you a free pass to skip the lessons that we all must learn. Hereditary lineage in fact for most has little bearing on what they learn, as well it should be.
Sometimes a person can be as hereditary as they come, but if it skipped a few generations they may have missed out on the teachings of their great grandmother. That doesn’t make their heritage invalid, or even their knowledge flawed- unless they have chosen to instead base their knowledge on movies and pop culture. Being a hereditary witch has actually nothing to do with making the same choices, and believing the same thing your mother, grandmother, or even great-great grandmother did.
The fundamental myth that we hereditary witches only choose to act as our predecessors did is completely void of truth. How could we be true to ourselves if we did? I am 25 years old, and I still fight and rebel against my mother! I intend to continue doing this for as long as it fits who I am. She and I luckily have a close, and accepting relationship where I am supposed to own up to who I am not reject it.
Another myth of hereditary witchcraft of course is that I somehow learned at birth how to cast a spell, read tarot cards, and astral travel. Ok, so I already knew how to astral travel. But the rest of it certainly isn’t true, and doesn’t mean that I am trained enough to teach another how to practice magic.
You probably wouldn’t even want me to teach you anyway, because what I do is not made of stars and light alone. What I do and practice is what works for me, and yes a lot of it happens to be something I learned from my mother. However, my mother helped form whom I am does not decide or determine whom I choose to be. Therefore if there is something that she believes that I disagree with, I tell her and I include exactly why I disagree. If my mother disagrees with me, she does the same and it is yes usually a long conversation. However, we both do what works for each of us individually because it works and it is who we are to do so.
Of course yet another myth of hereditary tradition and witchcraft is that somehow I think I’m better than other people because of how much I know. This is ironically the biggest complaint I have received from many people, and it is the reason I tell few people that I am a hereditary witch. I don’t know everything, plain and simple. I have always referred others to texts, teachers, and other resources if I feel I do not have a sound explanation for their questions. This of course, may not always even answer the question that was put to me to begin with. I can’t change that, and I hope that nobody whom I love and keep close would see this as insecurity.
Part Three: To Honor our Ancestors, and each other.
Hereditary witchcraft is how we preserved our traditions for centuries. If it had not have been for my mother, or my grandmother- I would not have the right to practice as I believe. I believe if it had not been for all of our elders, leaders, and community pioneers- we wouldn’t be recognized as having a religion within the United States of America. I give honor to all of them, because they are how we got here regardless of who their great, great, grandmothers were.
I also believe that we are a part of the future of witchcraft and paganism because in all that we do we are ever forming it. Like it or not, we are the legacy of modern witchcraft- and what we do will be written on the pages of history. I say, let’s document it better for ourselves this time.
To conclude this exposition in addressing the concept of modern hereditary witchcraft, here is the one thing you need to know to sort the fluffy self-deluded liars from the real witches that might actually want to know. Hereditary witches, to put it bluntly, are not people who have to do less work, or who are handed everything they need to know in a book of shadows from their grandmother. A hereditary witch that you would want to know, respect, and possibly utilize as a resource is someone who a) tells you and if necessary proves to you upon request where their lineage comes from even if it is broken in places b) knows themselves, and is true to themselves even if you don’t like them c) and who is astoundingly honest and expects the same from you.
If this is not what you discover from Mary Moon Beam, who claims hereditary practice is her middle name, then ask her why she believes this about herself. Then, would you please tell, Mary hereditary witch Moon Beam, that she is degrading the practice of other hereditary witches by lying to herself and others. Or alternatively, if you aren’t all that confrontational- walk the other way reminding yourself that you’re glad you are not that self-deluded.
The bottom line when meeting new people in the magical community is that if you don’t ask, you won’t know. Furthermore, if this person (aka Mary hereditary witch moon beam) is self deluded and following a path that isn’t right for them- do you really want to further the grand delusions they may have by feeding them attention for their claims? Generally those witches who lie or exaggerate about the nature of their practices are not the kind you want around, or the type you would want to look to for teaching and guidance.
Hereditary practitioners of magic are bound to the same laws of power everybody else is. We do not ‘skip go’ or collect 200 dollars for being who we are. We instead share the rewarding work of furthering the knowledge and raising the awareness of witchcraft in the modern world from a different vantage point. (Notice that in this sense ‘different’ doesn’t mean better or worse) Hereditary witchcraft is highly unique, relatively rare to find, and deeply rooted once you get to know their traditions. It is just as honorable to be a hereditary witch as it is to be of any other path, creed, ethos, or tradition.
It’s also just as challenging, if not more challenging than learning what have become mainstream traditions. So, don’t forget: they deserve the same respect and honor you give others of the craft- and no less. (Especially if the lack of respect comes from a place of assumption, and envy or jealousy)
It never hurts to remember and continually be reminded of this one fact in regards to dealing with other practitioners of multi-faceted traditions:
Purposefully disrespecting another member of the craft, in order to ‘justify’ the hierarchy, ethos, system of ethics, etc. that you believe in is never appreciated by anybody. Worse, it makes you look like a person who does not have the ability to discern fact from fiction!
From your favorite hereditarily fused and forged witch!