You’ve seen them: They’re usually the ones with the most outrageous costumes and jewelry; the ones who at times are almost a Hollywood parody of a Pagan, who look like they’ve escaped a Tolkien novel. You’ve heard them–giggling clutches of teenage girls in the new-age section of the bookstore poring over ‘love spell’ books. You try to avoid them–their incessant pontification and magical one-upmanship can drive a veteran Pagan crazy (and by ‘veteran’, I mean someone who has been practicing for at least a decade).
All right, old timer–time to sit back and remember your early days. Remember when you had your ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment–when perhaps you read about a particular spiritual practice in the first edition of Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon”? and said, “That’s for me!” Remember rushing home from the bookstore with the first edition of Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” and staying up all night reading it? Remember those lonely BI (Before Internet) days when you wondered if you were the Only Witch/Pagan/Druid in the world and if you’d EVER run into anyone else with similar beliefs? And how you felt when you finally did? I do.
In the 28 years since I realized I was a Witch and a Priestess, a lot has happened in our community. Much of it has been very positive. And some of it has not. One of the perhaps not-so-positive things has been the instant do-it-yourself, be-a-witch-in a week sort of book. Are they useful? Could they be considered dangerous? Should they be taken seriously? How should a Pagan Veteran handle an eager newbie? What are the dangers to a newcomer? I shall try to address these things in this essay.
Perhaps my own story of my journey to the Craft can be used as an example. At the tender age of 12, I knew that my religious path was not going to be in the church of my parents. I felt a calling beyond that stricture, and I knew in my heart that mine was to be a different path. I sat down with a candle at a makeshift altar late one evening when the rest of the family was asleep, and declared myself a Witch. I was a little fearful of that word, but it seemed to me that ‘witch’ fit me better than any other designation. Somehow, through the limited resources I had at that time (1973), I knew that the Witch I had declared myself to be was a Priestess, not an evildoer. And even though I did not know Her by Her many names yet, I felt myself embraced by the Goddess.
And so things remained until I left my home and family to join the US Air Force in 1979. Away from Arkansas and the fundamentalist stranglehold on the libraries and bookstores, I found Starhawk’s and Adler’s books, and many others. My education began. I read those books, and true to the teaching “when the student is ready, the teacher shall appear”, I began running into people who were instrumental in teaching me the principles of Magic and becoming comfortable with rituals outside a church service. The Rosicrucian Order was a great help in doing that. In 1985, I went overseas to Germany, and there my training towards Wiccan initiation began. I was fortunate to get to study with a wonderful group of people, and they believed in a long-term commitment. My training to Third Degree took a total of 7 years–one for the Year of Inquiry (neophyte), one for the First Degree, two to Second, and three to obtain Third. I had moved to England by then, and my Craft Mother made a trip to England to see me and initiate me. While in England, I received additional training and initiations from several different groups, including a ‘Fam-Trad’ lady of the Old Ways.
Now, my path is probably not typical. And I do not claim that my initiation is any ‘better’ than anyone else’s. But I was brought into the Craft in the ‘traditional’ way, even though I called myself a Witch long before. I had no “Instant Witch” books–I just ‘knew’ who I was.
I think that the main thing to look at is the quality of the books in question. Are ‘Instant Witch’ sorts of books useful? Yes, they are, if they have the right concepts. A good Witch primer should teach the basic laws of Magic, and emphasize the ethics of the Craft. They should outline our holidays and our roots. They should contain a self-blessing or dedication rite that is simple to perform, but spiritually effective. They should give the seeker a resource to contact like-minded others and learn more. If used correctly, they permit the seeker to ‘try on’ our rites and mindset and see if they ‘fit’ their own spiritual feelings. Such books can bring forth that ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment–that flash of recognition of ones own spiritual community. But it has to be emphasized that such books are only the beginning of training–they serve as gateways only.
Are such books dangerous? Not in themselves. The dangers lie in the mindset of the seeker. Why are they interested in becoming a Witch? Do they seek an alternative way to acknowledge God/dess or are they looking to have ‘power over’ others? Are they on a manipulative ego-trip? Or do they crave a return to a less dogmatic path than the popular religions offer?
An experienced Pagan can usually spot out the power-tripper pretty quickly. They’re the ones who misuse our rites to threaten or manipulate others by fear and ignorance. Or they’re trying to build an ‘instant Coven’ and inviting one and all to join it. Or else they are trying to shock others by taking on an ‘evil’ persona and relying on the general ignorance of Wicca by the mainstream to have their way. Some are mentally ill. Some want to be ‘fashionable’.
Should a neo-Witch be taken seriously? Yes!! Were you, when you were a young pup? How were you treated when you finally found your community? Newcomers should be treated kindly and courteously. Yes, they are Witches, or ‘baby Pagans’ as my friends like to say. And yes, they can be annoying. But as ‘babies’, they need to be guided and closely watched, because they are going through the measles and mumps that every spiritual ‘baby’ in the Magical Traditions undergoes. If you do not consider yourself a Craft Mother/Father, please, find your newcomer someone who is, and who will give him or her the proper care and guidance.
Here, courtesy of Starhawk and Z. Budapest, are some spiritual ‘measles and mumps’ that every newcomer runs into one time or another. Without a guide, our Instant Witch can be destroyed by any or all of these. The following is excerpted from “The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries” by Z. Budapest, First printing 1980. Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1, Publisher.
“ÖIt is a necessary part of everyone’s magical education to fall victim to one’s character traits occasionally. We all find ourselves ego-tripping, do-gooding, showing off and all the rest from time to time, but how else can we learn compassion and tolerance for others who go off on the same tangents? Falling victim to one’s own illusions eventually confers a sort of immunity, much like the result of a childhood disease, and with luck, recovery is rapid and complete. Here, then, are the ‘mumps’ and ‘measles’ of magic.
“Omnipotence. This is quite common when first discovering that your Will can effect events. You may feel a tremendous rush of power and believe that you can do anything and everything.
“Guilt. You may believe you can do everything, but sooner or later you will fail. ÖUnless you realize that magic has its limitations and works within the framework of laws (just as standard medical science does) you run the risk of feeling responsible for everything that goes wrong in the universe. Relax. You are not that powerful, nor are you that important.
“Paranoia. As your awareness grows and you become more conscious of negative energy and impulses in others, you may become oversensitive and begin jumping at shadows Ö(and) ascribing every negative thing that happens to you as a ‘psychic attack’. A healthy streak of cynicism is a good defense against this one. Remember that magic that is ‘real’ rarely conflicts with common sense.
“Saintliness. It is hard to resist the temptation to be more ‘spiritual than thou’, to offer unasked for advice to your acquaintances, and to look down on others who have not ‘seen the Light’ – all while trying to appear humble. With any luck at all, you’ll come back to earth before you lose all your friends.
“Showing off. This, like Saintliness, is hard to resist. When the fanatic Jehovah’s Witness in your chem class spouts off about religion, how can you NOT tell her you see a hypocritical green spot in her aura? With painful experience, however, you will discover that listen to your advice or commentary unless they have asked for it, and that magic only works when it is for real, not show.
“Going Half-Astral. When you get so caught up in magic and psychic work that you neglect the earthly plane and your physical body, you will become drained and weakened. In extreme cases, people who lose touch too completely with earth can have what amounts to a psychotic ‘break’. This is easily avoided, however, by making sure you stay grounded and centered when you do any magical work or meditations. Also, it is vital to have a satisfying and rewarding earth-plane life, including a good sex life and a love of good food.
“ÖYour very best protection, against all these ills and any others you may meet physically or psychically, is to maintain your sense of humor. As long as you can laugh at yourself, you cannot head too far down the wrong path, and you always have an immediate ticket back to truth. ÖRemember, laughter is the key to sanity!”
So, you see, becoming an ‘Instant Witch’ is only the first step along a long, but rewarding path. The ‘Instant-Witch’ books should be a sign of how far we have come in 25 years. It is the veterans, and the soon-to-be Elders in the Craft who have done the hard work of clearing the brambles from the entrance to our Path. Look at our young self-starters as a sign of our success, and welcome them warmly, take them in hand, and train and initiate them properly.