My Experience: Training in Witchcraft
Author: Rhys Chisnall
It was a long drive up through the dark trees of Elevdon Forest from Bury St. Edmunds to a small village in the North of Suffolk, and none of us in the car knew what to expect from our first session of Craft training; after all we were going to see the Witches. We knew that the training would be one evening a week, three weeks out of four for two years with a break between Halloween and Candlemas. We also knew that it was free of charge (though we were asked to bring biscuits) as apparently, all genuine Witchcraft training was given free of charge. We had been told though that it would be very hard work and they were not kidding, though I did not really know it then.
But as we drove through the forest in mid spring through the dark of the early evening, the leaves just starting to bud, we were not expecting the right rollicking we would get for being late.
A valuable first lesson- you don’t mess with the Craft, you treat it with respect.
It was the start of a great adventure, an adventure that has continued over many years till today, and looks set to continue for the rest of my life. It is an adventure that has taken me to places that I never imagined I would go, within this world and within myself and led to experiences that back then I could not have even conceived of in my wildest dreams. It has been an adventure that has brought me into contact with the most exceptional of people and with complete nutters, though as with any path in the Occult it is a road that had to be trodden by me alone- no one else could have walked it for me.
There is an old saying in the Craft, ‘that a Witch is not usually financially wealthy but he or she will always feel rich, rich in experience, rich in knowledge and rich in the friends that they make along the path’. For me it was the exceptional training that I received that opened up so many doors.
I had found out about the training through a contact organisation called The Green Circle. The Green Circle was a group founded by the magician Marian Green and was an organisation, which amongst other things helped practioners of the Western Mystery Tradition network and make contact with each other. I had been trying to practise by myself, and with a small group of friends for a couple of years and we were not really getting anywhere, several of them had lost interest, and so I had joined the organisation in the hope of meeting real Witches.
I suppose my interest in spirituality had recently been rekindled when I had read a book on Wicca. Even as a teenager I was always a keen reader. I had grown up in the countryside, as my father was the deputy principal of an agricultural college near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. As such my two younger brothers and I had the run of the college estate that included woodlands, ponds, rivers and fields. Perhaps it was this almost idyllic childhood, entrenched in the beautiful Suffolk Countryside that had led to my abiding love of nature and led ultimately to taking up a spiritual tradition that works with nature and its tides and season as a metaphor for its mysteries.
The Training group was run by a couple of Witches called Tricia and Dave. At that time they were the High Priestess and High Priest of a long established country coven in the rural north of Suffolk, a small town tucked away amid the trees of Thetford Forest. They felt that a long period of training outside the coven was necessary, firstly because it gave the coven a good long while to get to know potential members before they could join. Secondly it tested the commitment of the potential initiate (it’s funny how two years filters out the flavour of the month brigade) .
Thirdly a coven is only as strong as it weakest link (as a working coven has the responsibility to ensure that any spell work it undertakes is done to the best of their ability) . Fourthly and most importantly it gives the potential initiate the tools to practise personal development towards self-actualisation, leading to personal transformation making it possible to experience the mysteries and mystical experience.
“It is training for a mystical experience”, Dave said. At the time I had no idea what he was on about.
During that first session we discovered ourselves sitting in a comfortable living room in a pleasant medium sized bungalow in a small rural town in the middle of the forest. We were sat on leather chairs with Dave and Tricia who I guess at that time were in their mid fifties, facing towards us, and their Siamese cat Joss curled up asleep on one of the arms of the armchairs.
Dave has a voice like Christopher Lee while Tricia sat quiet sizing us up, when she spoke everyone listened. There were pictures of birds on the wall, and a carving of the Goddess Freya hanging up between them. There was also an old fashioned besom standing up against the wall- the sort you would expect Witches to have, and a funny looking forked stick leaning up in a corner. They explained to us that attending the training would not be a guarantee of being initiated into the Coven and that we were expected to put the training into practise in our lives.
“You will change, ” we were warned, “if you don’t change then the Craft is not working. Do you want to change? What about loved ones, will they want you to change, have you the right to inflict that upon them?” Blimey they were certainly right. “You will become and activist“, he said, “not the kind of activist who demonstrates outside of Greenham Common, but an activist within your own life.” He also warned us very gravely that we would only get out what we had put in.
Dave said that he would play devil’s advocate to see if we were really thinking for ourselves. We were expected to give our own ideas and opinions; we were not being told what to believe. We were not there to parrot back what Dave and Tricia was saying but to say what we really thought, what we really felt and what we really believed. They were not at all interested in what we thought they wanted to hear or what was written in some Farrar Book. Dave challenged everything we said (even if he agreed with it) . “If something doesn’t stand up to challenge then it is not worth keeping”, he said. It was certainly tough, but then anything worthwhile is earned and is not easy, you value it more, however it was also going to be really good fun and rewarding as well.
There was a huge amount to get through in two years. It wasn’t about how to cast a circle, nor doing rituals and casting spells. These are the kind of thing that may be taught after initiation in coven. Nor was it naff thing like tables of correspondences, what tool is used for what, what colour candle to burn or how to make a magic wand. Nor were we being told about the Wheel of the Year, or myths about the Gods- we could find out all that from books on Wicca. Likewise it was not about being told what to believe or towing the party line. Rather it was learning and practising the skills required for magic, meditation, visualisation and concentration. We looked into the function of Altered States of Consciousness and how to achieve them, of the functions of myth and ritual, not just in the Craft but also in religions and spirituality in general. We were asked to write our own personal myth to help us find patterns within our own lives, and thus change it if we wished. How can you change something if you unaware of it within yourself? Also we were taught how to write our own effective rituals.
Much of the training was about our self-actualisation and personal development. In particular we looked at Maslow’s model of self-actualisation and peak experiences. Dave and Tricia suggested that Witches were self-actualisers or at least were working towards it. We also spent a lot of time examining Carl Jung’s Depth Psychology. We looked at his model of the psyche, at owning our shadow, coming to terms and accepting and integrating those parts of ourselves that we dislike and often project onto others. We looked at our contra sexual side, that part of our psyche that is feminine if we are male and masculine if we are female, but at the same time realising that these are often culturally determined.
It is the path to individuation to identifying more fully with the whole of our psyche rather than just with the ego- giving us a more balanced personality and thus picture of the world. In that way we can deal with the world more wisely and act with self-determination. It wasn’t enough just to talk about it or to learn about it; rather we had to put it into practise in our own lives. This meant that we had to be very honest with ourselves; a process that continues throughout our lives.
Dave and Tricia said that it was a life long process of personal transformation, and self-knowledge, the start of which is initiation leading to individuation, and the identifying of self with the whole- pure mysticism. This was part of a mystery tradition; after all it was written above the temple of the mysteries, ‘Know thy self’. What isn’t so well known is what is written on the inside and is only seen by initiates, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch!’
All this was tied to the myth of the wheel of the year. During training we discovered that the Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year had little to do with Celtic festivals as is often mentioned in Pop Wicca books. Rather the Wheel of the Year was like a big onion, multi layered. On the one hand it referred to the tides and season of the year, on another they referred to the mysteries of birth, sex, life, sacrifice (i.e. as in being a parent, putting your children first) , and death. On yet another it might refer to planning, putting into action, achievement and reflection forming a virtuous cycle, and so on and so on. We were encouraged to apply it to our own lives on the inner and outer levels.
We didn’t shy away from some of the topics that are often seen as taboo in Pop Wicca and Paganism in general. We learned about sacred sexuality, a quality very hard to define in words. Dave and Tricia spoke about the anima and animus our contra sexual sides, cultural memes of masculinity and femininity and how both need to be equally valued within us. We discussed the Lady and the Dark Horned Lord, within and without as metaphors of life, fertility, death and change.
We looked at the reasons for working sky clad that is ritually naked. This is something that is guaranteed to cause upset amongst Pop Wiccan, who sadly seem to have a fear of sexuality and sharing their whole selves (warts and all) within a coven. And who can blame them? Sexuality can be a very scary thing. But if we cannot truly love ourselves how can we truly love others? Craft is also about self-actualisation and self-empowerment, and sexuality is the fuel of the Craft. However it was also mentioned many times by Dave and Tricia that Witchcraft is not for everybody.
Another potentially upsetting subject was the subject of death. We were encouraged to learn about the nature of grief and how to help others and ourselves through it. We were also asked to write our own funerals. There were some really good reasons for this. It made us confront our own inevitable mortality in a healthy way. By directly thinking about our end gives more value to the present and allows us not to put off those things we would like to do. For me, it makes me extremely grateful that I am alive and have the opportunity to experience the wonder of the World, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It also gives loved ones something less to worry about in what is already a difficult time for them. By planning your own funeral and letting loved ones know what your plans are, means that they can just carry them out with little stress placed on deciding on what the deceased would have wanted.
However we had to bear in mind that funerals are not for the person that has died but for the people left behind. Sadly this was put into practise as in the training group after mine, a trainee tragically died. Since he had planed his own funeral and discussed it with his wife, a lot of the stress of preparation was taken away from her. He had done a good job of planning it and had put a lot of ‘fun’ back into ‘funeral’, there were a lot of tears of sadness and laughter that day.
It was all pretty practical stuff that we were being trained in, stuff that needed to be applied to our own lives. We also looked at plant identification and their uses for herbal medicine, magic and myth, at wine making and dowsing.
As Craft is a practical spirituality that deals in real life rather than fantasy, we also had ‘Tricia’s Topics’ every week. In this part of the evening we would discuss a current event, a life problem, a coven problem etc. The idea being that Craft needs to be grounded in the everyday world of real life- ‘Feet firmly on the ground and head among the stars’. Thank goodness there was no talk of fairies or how to make a wand with a crystal on the end.
Now I have heard Crafte training criticised, usually by people who have not undertaken it. One of the arguments put forward is that surely you do not need training to join a religion, after all who has ever heard of a Christian or a Muslim being trained. If you are talking about a religion I would one hundred percent agree with you, and for many Witchcraft and Wicca is seen as a religion. However we were not being trained in a religion, but rather an occult and mystery tradition. In the same way that Hermeticism, Cabbala, Tantra or Sufism are not religions, neither was the Craft I was trained in. Like all occult traditions one of its functions was a kind of reversed engineered mysticism. By understanding the metaphor of myth and ritual, by attuning to the changing seasons and re-experiencing and celebrating the lesser mysteries as contained in the metaphor of the Wheel of the Year, and working with certain techniques, we would come in time to have mystical experience which is a life transforming event. As such the trainers need to have undergone this process and have the necessary skills to practise magic, and had mystical experiences and experienced the mysteries themselves, how else could they pass them on and facilitate them on others? In the Craft, second best is never good enough. However, I should add that many people have spontaneous mystical experiences without any training.
As I came to the end of my training Dave and Tricia put me in touch with a Gardnerian Coven in East Anglia, whom I promptly contacted and asked if I could join (you are never invited to join a genuine coven- you have to ask) . Having had recommendations form Dave and Tricia they were happy to take me on, and I was initiated into the Gardnerian Witchcraft. I stayed with that Coven for five years and learnt an awful lot from them. However it became clear within the last couple of years that they were moving in another spiritual direction to myself. Therefore I decided to go back to Dave and Tricia to do their High Priestess and High Priest awareness course, which was also two years long. At the end of the course Dave and Tricia asked me if I would be happy to take over their training course for them, as they felt that they had done their bit for king and country, and I was happy to agree. As such I left the Gardnerian Group though we are still good friends and was initiated (after asking) into Dave and Tricia’s country coven in the north of Suffolk. I have been there for ten years so far and really love it. Every meeting I learn something new, and the people in the coven are exceptional; our HPS is the best I have ever worked under- who brings the rituals alive with a magic all of her own.
So now I have come full circle, I have been training potential new Witches for nine years some of which have joined the coven. I love doing it for several reasons. The most important ones being that over the two years trainees become really good friends. I also learn so much from the trainees myself and it really helps to keep my skills and ideas fresh. One of the greatest things about it is there is nothing more rewarding or satisfying than to see people work with the Craft, to see them use it to transform their lives and themselves, starting them on their own greatest adventure of their lives.