Let’s Talk Witch – A Celebration of MAY DAY by Mike Nichols

A Celebration Of
MAY DAY
by Mike Nichols

 


 

“Perhaps it’s just as well that you won’t be here …
to be offended by the sight of our May Day celebrations.”
—Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from
The Wicker Man

 

There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Witches’ calendar, as well. The two greatest of these are Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer). Being opposite each other on the wheel of the year, they separate the year into halves. Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is generally considered the more important of the two, though May Day runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas—notably Wales—it is considered “the great holiday”.

May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year, the month of May. This month is named in honor of the Goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, God of magic. Maia’s parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.

The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its most popular Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic Bealtaine or the Scottish Gaelic Bealtuinn, meaning “Bel-fire”, the fire of the Celtic God of Light (Bel, Beli, or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern God Baal.

Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain (opposite Samhain), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval church’s name). This last came from church fathers who were hoping to shift the common people’s allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingam—symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the cross—Roman instrument of death).

Incidentally, there is no historical justification for calling May 1 ‘Lady Day’. For hundreds of years, that title has been proper to the vernal equinox (approximately March 21), another holiday sacred to the Great Goddess. The nontraditional use of ‘Lady Day’ for May 1 is quite recent (since the early 1970s), and seems to be confined to America, where it has gained widespread acceptance among certain segments of the Craft population. This rather startling departure from tradition would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European calendar customs, as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among too many Pagans. A simple glance at a dictionary (Webster’s 3rd or O.E.D.), encyclopedia (Benet’s), or standard mythology reference (Jobe’s Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore & Symbols) would confirm the correct date for Lady Day as the vernal equinox.

By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Belfires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These “need-fires” had healing properties, and skyclad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection.

Sgt. Howie (shocked): “But they are naked!”
Lord Summerisle: “Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”

—from The Wicker Man

 

Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bonfires (oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be taken to their summer pastures.

Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one’s property (“beating the bounds”), repairing fences and boundary markers, processions of chimney sweeps and milkmaids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.

In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Beltane celebration was principally a time of “unashamed human sexuality and fertility”. Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobbyhorse. Even a seemingly innocent children’s nursery rhyme “Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross …” retains such memories. And the next line, “to see a fine Lady on a white horse”, is a reference to the annual ride of Lady Godiva through Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries, a skyclad village maiden (elected “Queen of the May”) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.

The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially attempted to suppress the “greenwood marriages” of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning. One angry Puritan wrote that men “doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.” And another Puritan complained that, “Of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.”

Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.

These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!

 

And Lerner and Lowe:

It’s May! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!…
Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes,
Ev’ryone breaks.
Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!

 

It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere’s ‘abduction’ by Meliagrance occurs on May 1 when she and the court have gone a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen’s guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.

Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman feast of flowers, the Floralia, three days of unrestrained sexuality that began at sundown April 28 and reached a crescendo on May 1.

There are other, even older, associations with May 1 in Celtic mythology. According to the ancient Irish Book of Invasions, the first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1, and it was on May 1 that the plague came that destroyed his people. Years later, the Milesians conquered the Tuatha De Danann on May Day. In Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creiddyled took place each May Day, and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.

By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date. This date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at fifteen degrees Taurus (usually around May 5). British Witches often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. (Old Style). Some covens prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options. If a coven is operating on ‘Pagan Standard Time’ and misses May 1 altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it’s before May 5. This may also be a consideration for covens that need to organize activities around the weekend.

This date has long been considered a “power point” of the zodiac, and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the tetramorph figures featured on the tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other three symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.) Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four “fixed” signs of the zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four Gospel writers.

But for most, it is May 1 that is the great holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for the band Jethro Tull:

For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.

 


 

Document Copyright © 1983 – 2009 by Mike Nichols.
Text editing courtesy of Acorn Guild Press.
Website redesign by Bengalhome Internet Services, © 2009

Permission is given to re-publish this document only as long as no information is lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others.
This notice represents an exception to the copyright notice found in the Acorn Guild Press edition of The Witches’ Sabbats and applies only to the text as given above.
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The Ethics of Love Spells by Mike Nichols

The Ethics of Love Spells    
      
   by Mike Nichols
by Mike Nichols

To gain the love of someone: On a night of the full moon, walk to a spot beneath your beloved’s bedroom window, and whisper his/her name three times to the nightwind. –Ozark love spell

It seems to be an immutable law of nature. You are interviewed by a local radio or TV station, or in some local newspaper. The topic of the interview is Witchcraft or Paganism, and you spend the better part of an hour brilliantly articulating your beliefs, your devotion to Goddess and nature, the difference between Witchcraft and Satanism, and generally enlightening the public at large. The next day, you are flooded with calls. Is it people complimenting you on such a splendid interview? No. People wanting to find out more about the religion of Wicca? Huh-uh. People who are even vaguely interested in what you had to say??? Nope. Who is it? It’s people asking you to do a love spell for them!

This used to drive me nuts. I’d take a deep breath and patiently explain (for the thousandth time) why I won’t even do love spells for myself, let alone anyone else. This generally resulted in my caller becoming either angry or defensive, but seldom more enlightened. ‘But don’t you DO magic?’, they ask. ‘Only occasionally,’ I answer. ‘And aren’t most magic spells love spells?’, they persist. That was the line I really hated, because I knew they were right! At least, if you look at the table of contents of most books on magic, you’ll find more love spells than any other kind. This seems as true for the medieval grimoire as for the modern drugstore paperback.

Why? Why so many books containing so many love spells? Why such an emphasis on a kind of magic that I, personally, have always considered very negative? And to make matters even more confusing, the books that do take the trouble of dividing spells between ‘positve’ and ‘negative’ magic invariably list love spells under the first heading. After all, they would argue, love is a good thing. There can never be too much of it. Therefore, any spell that brings about love must be a GOOD spell. Never mind that the spell puts a straightjacket on another’s free will, and then drops it in cement for good measure

And that is why I had always assumed love magic to be negative magic. Years ago, one of the first things I learned as a novice Witch was something called the Witch’s Rede, a kind of ‘golden rule’ in traditional Witchcraft. It states, ‘An it harm none, do what thou will.’ One uses this rede as a kind of ethical litmus test for a spell. If the spell brings harm to someone — anyone (including yourself!) — then don’t do it! Unfortunately, this rule contains a loophole big enough to fly a broom through. It’s commonly expressed, ‘Oh, this won’t HARM them; it’s really for their own good.’ When you hear someone say that, take cover, because something especially nasty is about to happen.

That’s why I had to develop my own version of the Witch’s Rede. Mine says that if a spell harms anyone, OR LIMITS THEIR FREEDOM OF THOUGHT OR ACTION IN ANY WAY, then consider it negative, and don’t do it. Pretty strict, you say? Perhaps. But there’s another law in Witchcraft called the Law of Threefold Return. This says that whatever power you send out, eventually comes back to you three times more powerful. So I take no chances. And love spells, of the typical make-Bobby-love-me type, definitely have an impact on another’s free will.

So why are they so common? It’s taken me years to make peace with this, but I think I finally understand. The plain truth is that most of us NEED love. Without it, our lives are empty and miserable. After our basic survival needs have been met, we must have affection and companionship for a full life. And if it will not come of its own accord, some of us may be tempted to FORCE it to come. And nothing can be as painful as loving someone who doesn’t love you back. Consequently, the most common, garden-variety spell in the world is the love spell.

Is there ever a way to do a love spell and yet stay within the parameters of the Witch’s Rede? Possibly. Some teachers have argued that if a spell doesn’t attempt to attract a SPECIFIC person into your life, but rather attempts to attract the RIGHT person, whomever that may be, then it is not negative magic. Even so, one should make sure that the spell finds people who are ‘right’ for each other — so that neither is harmed, and both are made happy.

Is there ever an excuse for the make-Bobby-love-me type of spell? Without endorsing this viewpoint, I must admit that the most cogent argument in its favor is the following: Whenever you fall in love with someone, you do everything in your power to impress them. You dress nicer, are more attentive, witty, and charming. And at the same time, you unconsciously set in motion some very powerful psychic forces. If you’ve ever walked into a room where someone has a crush on you, you know what I mean. You can FEEL it. Proponents of this school say that a love spell only takes the forces that are ALREADY there — MUST be there if you’re in love — and channels them more efficiently.

But the energy would be there just the same, whether or not you use a spell to focus it.

I won’t attempt to decide this one for you. People must arrive at their own set of ethics through their own considerations. However, I would call to your attention all the cautionary tales in folk magic about love spells gone awry. Also, if a love spell has been employed to join two people who are not naturally compatible, then one must keep pumping energy into the spell. And when one finally tires of this (and one will, because it is hard work!) then the spell will unravel amidst an emotional and psychic hurricane that will make the stormiest divorces seem calm by comparison. Not a pretty picture.

It should be noted that many spells that pass themselves off as love spells are, in reality, sex spells. Not that there’s anything surprising in that, since our most basic needs usually include sex. But I think we should be clear from the outset what kind of spell it is. And the same ethical standards used for love spells can often be applied to sex spells. Last year, the very quotable Isaac Bonewits, author of ‘Real Magic’, taught a sex magic class here at the Magick Lantern, and he tossed out the following rule of thumb: Decide what the mundane equivalent of your spell would be, and ask yourself if you could be arrested for it. For example, some spells are like sending a letter to your beloved in the mail, whereas other spells are tantamount to abduction. The former is perfectly legal and normal, whereas the latter is felonious.

One mitigating factor in your decisions may be the particular tradition of magic you follow. For example, I’ve often noticed that practitioners of Voudoun (Voodoo) and Santeria seem much more focused on the wants and needs of day-to-day living than on the abstruse ethical considerations we’ve been examining here. That’s not a value judgement — just an observation. For example, most followers of Wicca STILL don’t know how to react when a Santerian priest spills the blood of a chicken during a ritual — other than to feel pretty queasy. The ethics of one culture is not always the same as another.

And speaking of cultural traditions, another consideration is how a culture views love and sex. It has often been pointed out that in our predominant culture, love and sex are seen in very possessive terms, where the beloved is regarded as one’s personal property. If the spell uses this approach, treating a person as an object, jealously attempting to cut off all other relationships, then the ethics are seriously in doubt. However, if the spell takes a more open approach to love and sex, not attempting to limit a person’s other relationships in any way, then perhaps it is more defensible. Perhaps. Still, it might be wise to ask, Is this the kind of spell I’d want someone to cast on me?

Love spells. Whether to do them or not. If you are a practitioner of magic, I dare say you will one day be faced with the choice. If you haven’t yet, it is only a matter of time. And if the answer is yes, then which spells are ethical and which aren’t? Then you, and only you, will have to decide whether ‘All’s fair in love and war’, or whether there are other, higher, metaphysical considerations.

Document Copyright © 1988, 1998 by Mike Nichols

A Very Blessed & Happy Tuesday To All Our Dear Friends!

We wanted to start the day by sharing an article from one of our favorite Pagan writers, Mike Nichols. We don’t know if you are familiar with his work or not, but he writes articles about all of our Sabbats and then a few others ones like the one below. We hope you enjoy the article and his writing as much as we do.

Goddess Bless You & Yours,

The WOTC

 

Two Witches

A Modern Craft Fairy-Tale

by Mike Nichols

Once upon a  time, there were two  Witches.  One was  a Feminist Witch and the other was a Traditionalist Witch.  And, although both  of them were deeply religious, they had rather different ideas about what their religion meant.  The Feminist Witch tended to believe that Witchcraft was a religion especially suited to  women because the image of the Goddess was empowering and a strong weapon against patriarchal tyranny.  And there was distrust in the heart of the Feminist Witch for  the Traditionalist Witch because, from the Feminist perspective, the Traditionalist Witch seemed subversive and a  threat to “the Cause”.

The  Traditionalist Witch  tended  to believe  that  Witchcraft was  a religion for  both men and women  because anything less would  be divisive. And although  the  Goddess was  worshipped, care  was taken  to give  equal stress to the God-force in nature, the  Horned One.  And there was distrust in  the heart of the  Traditionalist Witch for  the Feminist Witch because, from  the  Traditionalist  viewpoint,  the  Feminist  Witch  seemed  like a late-comer and a threat to “Tradition”. These two Witches lived in the same community  but each belonged  to a  different Coven, so  they did  not often run into  one another.  Strange to say, the  few times they did meet, they felt an odd sort of mutual attraction, at least on the physical level. But both recognized the folly of this attraction, for their ideologies were worlds apart, and nothing, it seemed, could ever bridge them.

Then one year the community decided to hold a Grand Coven, and all the Covens in the area were invited to attend.  After the rituals, the singing, the  magicks, the  feasting, the  poetry, and  dancing were  concluded, all retired to  their tents and  sleeping bags.  All  but these two.   For they were troubled by their differences and couldn’t sleep.  They alone remained sitting by the  campfire while all others around them  dreamed.  And before long, they began to talk about their differing  views of the Goddess.  And, since they were both  relatively inexperienced Witches, they soon  began to argue about what was the “true” image of the Goddess.

“Describe your image of the Goddess to me,” challenged the  Feminist Witch. The Traditionalist Witch smiled, sighed, and said in a rapt voice, “She  is the  embodiment  of all  loveliness.   The quintessence  of feminine beauty.  I picture her with silver-blond hair like moonlight, rich and thick, falling down around her  soft shoulders.  She has the voluptuous young body  of  a  maiden in  her  prime,  and  her clothes  are  the  most seductive, gossamer thin and clinging to her willowy frame.  I see her  dancing like a  young elfin nymph in a moonlit glade, the dance of a temple priestess.  And she  calls to her lover, the Horned One, in a voice that is gentle and soft  and sweet, and  as musical as a  silver bell frosted  with ice.   She is Aphrodite, goddess  of sensual love.  And  her lover comes in answer to  her call, for she is destined to  become the Great Mother.  That is how I see the Goddess.”

The Feminist Witch hooted  with laughter and said, “Your Goddess  is a Cosmic Barbie  Doll!  The Jungian archetype of a  cheer-leader!  She is all glitter and no substance.   Where is her strength?   Her power?  I  see the Goddess very  differently.  To  me, she is  the embodiment of  strength and courage  and wisdom.   A  living symbol  of the  collective power  of women everywhere.  I picture her with hair as black as a moonless night, cropped  short for ease  of care on the field of battle.   She has the muscular body of a woman at the peak of health and fitness.  And her clothes are the most practical  and sensible, not slinky  cocktail dresses.   She does not paint her face or perfume  her hair or shave her  legs to please men’s  vanities. Nor does she do  pornographic dances to attract a man to her.  For when she calls to a  male, in a voice that  is strong and defiant, it will  be to do battle with the repressive masculine ego.  She is Artemis the huntress, and it is fatal for  any man to cast a  leering glance in her direction.   For, although she may be the many-breasted Mother, she is also the dark Crone of wisdom, who destroys the old order.  That is how I see the Goddess.”

Now  the Traditionalist  Witch hooted  with  laughter and  said, “Your Goddess  is the antithesis of  all that is feminine!   She is Yahweh hiding behind a feminine mask!  Don’t forget  that it was his followers who burned Witches  at the stake for the “sin” of  having “painted faces”.  After all, Witches  with their knowledge of herbs were  the ones who developed the art of cosmetics.  So what of beauty?  What of love and desire?”

And so the argument raged, until the sound of their  voices awakened a Coven Elder  who was sleeping nearby.   The Elder looked  from the Feminist Witch to the Traditionalist Witch and back again, saying nothing for a long moment.  Then the Elder suggested that both Witches go into the woods apart from one another and there, by magick and meditation, that each seek a  “true” vision of the Goddess.  This they both agreed to do.

After  a time of invocations, there was a moment of perfect stillness. Then a glimmer of light could be seen in the forest, a light shaded deepest green  by the  dense foliage.   Both Witches  ran toward the  source of the radiance.  To their  wonder and amazement, they discovered the  Goddess had appeared  in a clearing directly between  them, so that neither Witch could see the other.  And the Traditionalist Witch yelled “What did I tell  you!” at the  same instant the Feminist Witch yelled  “You see, I was right!” and so neither Witch heard the other.

To the  Feminist Witch, the Goddess  seemed to be a  shining matrix of power and  strength, with courage and energy  flowing outward.  The Goddess seemed  to be  holding out  her arms  to embrace  the Feminist Witch,  as a comrade in arms.  To the Traditionalist Witch, the Goddess seemed to be the zenith of feminine beauty, lightly playing a harp and singing a siren song  of seduction.   Energy seemed to flow towards her.   And she seemed to hold out her arms to the Traditionalist Witch, invitingly.

From opposite sides of the clearing, the Witches ran toward the figure of  the Goddess they both loved so well, desiring to be held in the ecstasy of that divine embrace.   But just before they reached her,  the apparition vanished. And the two Witches were startled to find themselves  embracing each other.

And then they both heard the voice of the Goddess.  And, oddly enough, it sounded exactly the same to both of them.  It sounded like laughter.

 

 

 

 

More Tuesday Comments

A Witch By Any Other Name (The Great Wicca vs. Witchcraft Debate)

Author: Mike Nichols

“A difference that makes no difference is not a difference.” –Ambassador Spock

It took more than twenty years before I first ran across the notion that Witchcraft and Wicca were not the same thing. I don’t remember where I first read it, but I do remember feeling bemused at such an assertion, and assumed the author had failed to do adequate research into the origins of the word “witch”. I also assumed I’d heard the last of it. I assumed wrong!

Over the years, I’ve seen this sentiment turning up more and more, in conversations, in online discussions and websites, and even in published works on Witchcraft. It is often stated with such conviction that one might conclude it is the very least one needs to know on the subject. The author is usually at pains to convey the distinction that Wicca designates a religion, whereas Witchcraft is merely the practice of magic. In recent years, I have come across three further amplifications: The first is that some groups identify themselves as practicing Wicca exclusively, as a religious or spiritual path. As such, they do not hold with the more “debased” practice of Witchcraft or other magic! The second is that some groups claim that Witchcraft predates Wicca (which they apparently believe was invented by Gerald Gardner) and is therefore more “authentic”. The third is that only practitioners who are in a lineal descent from Gardner or one of his covens may use the word Wicca to describe their tradition. All others would have to default to the word Witchcraft for their praxis.

Needless to say (or is it?), this so-called “distinction” between Witchcraft and Wicca came as a huge surprise, and a bit of a shock, to those of us who embarked upon this path back in the 1960s and ’70s. Although the term Wicca was known (as the origin of the word Witch), it was seldom used. We were Witches, pure and simple. And we practiced Witchcraft, or sometimes “the Craft”, or (based on a popular but incorrect etymology) “the Craft of the Wise”, or “the Old Religion”. But nobody practiced “Wicca”. Even Gardnerians called themselves Witches, typically modified by others to Gardnerian Witches. On the rare occasion when the word Wicca did come up, it was used interchangeably with Witchcraft. Most often, it was when someone was trying to dodge the issue. Potential father-in-law: “So what is this weird cult my daughter says you’re into?” Boyfriend (blood draining from face): “Uhhhhh….. OH! I think you must mean Wicca? yeah, that’s it… Say, how about those Dodgers?”

The attempt to make a distinction between the spiritual, devotional, or celebrational side of our religion, and the more utilitarian use of ritual and ceremony to effect desired changes in our world, would never have occurred to us. One of the principle tenets of Witchcraft is that the spiritual and material sides of life interpenetrate one another and cannot be meaningfully separated. To attempt to do so is to encourage the sort of Neo-Platonic dualism that has bedeviled our Western society for centuries and led to, among other things, the demonizing of sex and the body, and disdain for our environment. In fact, any attempt to separate Wicca from Witchcraft, the religious practice from the magical practice, is not only historically misguided, but politically dangerous. It plays us directly into the hands of our detractors. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first question to tackle is where this idea came from. It clearly wasn’t there in the 1960s. Nor can it be found in the writings of the 1970s. In fact, an unambiguous reference to this idea does not occur until the late1980s! So the first thing to realize is that this notion is of far more recent vintage than most people would believe. Books about Witchcraft (such as Sybil Leek’s Diary of a Witch, in which she speaks of Witchcraft as a religion) began to be published frequently from the 1960s onward, yet they used the word Wicca quite sparingly. In fact, the first popular book to use the word Wicca in the title did not appear until 1988! This was Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Had this title appeared in bookstores in the ’60s or ’70s, the most likely reaction, even from Witches themselves, would have been “Huh?!” They would have recognized the word, but would have wondered why such an obscure term should have been preferred to a common one. Not coincidentally, Scott Cunningham was among the first writers to claim there is a difference between Wicca and Witchcraft.

But is there really a difference? In point of fact, “wicca” and “witch” are the same word. This cannot be overstated because few people today believe it. Nonetheless, it is true. Wicca is simply the earlier form of the word witch. Proof of this can easily be found in the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. The O.E.D. (as it is known by scholars) is the highest court of appeals for questions of etymology. “Witch” comes from the Saxon word “wicca”. That is a noun with a masculine ending, and (hold on to your pointy hats!) it should properly be pronounced “witch’-ah”, not “wick’-ah”! In the Saxon tongue, nouns had either masculine or feminine endings, depending on their referents. The feminine form was “wicce”, properly pronounced “witch’-eh”. Note the same word was applied to both males and females (no ‘warlocks’ here!), with only the ending changed. As the word evolved into modern English, the gender ending was dropped, leaving us with a word that is pronounced “witch”, and ultimately spelled that way.

When you consider that the Saxon “cc” was pronounced “tch”, it becomes easier to understand how the modern word “witch” is derived from the Old English “wicca”, and how, ultimately, they are the same word. To say that they are different words, with a different provenance, and different meanings, is to ignore these simple facts. While we’re at it, here’s one more surprise: the word “wiccan”, although typically used by modern Witches to modify a noun (“This is a Wiccan ceremony.”), is not an adjective. It’s a plural noun. One wicca, two wiccan. That’s the masculine plural ending, obviously. The feminine plural form would be “wiccen” (rhymes with bitchin’). 😉 Although in modern English, the “s” or “es” plural ending is the most common, the “an” or “en” plural is not unknown, the most obvious example being child > children.

So how is it that Wicca came to be seen as distinct and separate from Witch, in both provenance and meaning? One might speculate that Gerald Gardner himself played a role. Not only did Gardner revive and popularize the craft of the witch, he also revived and popularized the older Saxon form of the word, wicca. In doing so, however, he spelled it with only one “c”, rendering it as “wica” in his writings. This tended to undermine the correct “tch” pronunciation of the original “wicca”, and thus to obscure its obvious connection with the word “witch”. Further, it may have encouraged the now common pronunciation of “wicca” as “wick’-ah”, an entirely new critter in our English lexicon. This criticism of Gardner’s spelling may actually be too harsh considering “wicca” dates to a time before dictionaries or standardized orthography were invented.

Incidentally, there are some authors today who are so convinced that Gardner invented modern Wicca, or Witchcraft (as opposed to simply reviving it), that they also mistakenly believe that he invented the word “wicca” itself! (Even more amusing, an article on a well-known Wiccan website recently claimed that Selena Fox invented the word Wicca in the 1960s!) Again, anyone who takes the trouble to do a modicum of research will discover the antiquity of the word. According to the O.E.D. (and as noted by Doreen Valiente), the oldest extant appearance of the word “wicca” can be found in the Law Codes of Alfred the Great, circa 890 C.E. Alfred was a Christian and zealous about converting everyone under his rule to his faith. Those who followed the pre-Christian “superstitious” practices of their Pagan ancestors were called Wiccan, whether they were Alfred’s own countrymen, or the Celtic people in the areas Alfred was conquering. What did the Celts themselves call these people, in 890? Not Wiccan, because that was the Saxon word for it. Very probably, they used some form of the modern word “druid”. That being the case, we have a scenario dating back over a thousand years, where the word “Witch” was applied to people who called themselves “Druid”. This is one reason I have always believed that Druidism is one of the tributaries (and a large one!) of modern Witchcraft. (This will no doubt give hissy-fits to all those authors who have written Wicca-Isn’t-Celtic articles.)

So now the question becomes, did the word Wicca become totally extinct at some time before Gardner resurrected it? The answer will come as a shock to many. It may have been “extinct” in the sense of being replaced by “witch” in common usage, but it continued to be known in its earlier form, “wicca”, even before Gardner came onto the scene. One quick and obvious proof of this is that J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, used the word “wicca” when drafting his earliest manuscript of The Two Towers. We know this because Tolkien’s son Christopher has meticulously documented his father’s creative process throughout twelve volumes of analysis. In volume seven, “The Treason of Isengard”, Ch. XX, “The Riders of Rohan”, Christopher mentions, in a passing footnote, that Tolkien uses the word “wicca” apparently to identify the characters Gandalf and Saruman, who were otherwise called “wizards” throughout the trilogy. The word “wicca” is written in the margin next to the scene discussing the identity of a mysterious old bearded man wondering Rohan. Tolkien was writing this draft in 1942, ten years before Gardner published his first treatise on Wica. So it is impossible for Gardner to have influenced Tolkien’s use of the term. Nor did Tolkien influence Gardner, since this marginalia was unpublished. These were totally independent uses of the same word by different authors working in different fields, with Tolkien giving the more common spelling a full decade before Gardner.

Therefore, if Wicca is merely an earlier form of the word Witch, and still extant in the decades before Gardner, it seems highly unlikely that Wicca and Witchcraft mean two different things. Of course, to make them perfectly parallel, one should give the latter the fuller Saxon form, Wicce-cræft. But what did the word Wicca actually mean? How does one define it? Before traveling too far down that road, it will be necessary to dismiss a couple of pop etymologies that have gained favor in recent decades. The first is that “wicca” is the origin of our modern words “wisdom” and “wise”. Hence, Wicce-cræft is the “Craft of the Wise”. This is a lovely concept, and one embraced by many practicing Witches today who call their religion “the Craft of the Wise”, or simply “the Craft” for short. Sadly, this etymology is no longer supportable. Still, it is easy to see how the confusion arose, since the two concepts touch each other at many historical points. It was a common practice for many centuries to refer to the village herbalist or midwife as either a “witch” or a “wise woman”. As Reginald Scott says in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (published in 1584), “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.'” We also know that the male equivalent of such a person was often termed a “wizard” (remember Tolkien’s wizards, also designated “wicca”), and wizard is etymologically connected to the words “wisdom” and “wise”. Finally, it will be recalled that King Alfred applied the word “wiccan” to people who very probably referred to themselves by a variant of the word “Druid”, which has been translated as “oak wisdom” or “oak wise”. So the connection between “witch” and “wisdom”, if not linguistic, is a long-standing and stubborn one.

A slightly more recent attempt at the etymology of “wicca” relates it to an ancient word that meant “to twist or bend”. Supporters of this theory “explained” it by saying that Witches are people who “twist or bend” reality ˆ a reference to their magical workings. The only thing that seems twisted or bent about this explanation is that it is strained almost to the breaking point. So if “wicca” doesn’t mean either “twisted” or “wisdom” (or Twisted Wisdom ˆ which would be a great name for a Pagan rock band), what does it mean? My own inclination is to follow the lead of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell and trace the word wicca back to its ultimate origin in the Indo-European root word, *weik2. Linguists now believe that *weik2 had a meaning that was about halfway between our modern concepts of “religion” and “magic”. It might best be explained by drawing a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles, one labeled “religion” and one labeled “magic”. *Weik2 would apply to the area where the two circles overlap. And this meaning is just what one would logically expect. (Interestingly, the only other word in any modern Indic language that is also traced back to weik2 is the word “Veda”, a word used to designate Hindu sacred scriptures, once again underscoring its connection to religious tradition.)

So then, is Wicce-cræft or Witchcraft a religion? Is someone designated as Wicca or Witch a follower of that religion? The short answer is that it all depends on what you mean by “religion”. Scholars of comparative religion will already know where I’m going with this. In our Western culture, we tend to think of religion in very narrow terms. We suppose it always comes with certain trappings and structures, and that it remains highly consistent over time. We might assume a religion must have specific beliefs, that it has sacred scriptures, that it has a recognizable clergy, that it has some connection to a God or Gods, that is has a specific set of rituals, that is has a hierarchy of followers, or that it champions a certain set of moral precepts. Surprisingly, as travelers to the Orient have discovered, many of the world’s great religions break one or more of these rules. All the more so do the hundreds of smaller, tribal, and aboriginal religions break them. Some of these religions are little more than a loose collection of rituals and devotions that change dramatically over time. They are not the large-scale, well-funded, organized religions typical of the West. Rather, they might best be described as “folk religions”. It is in this sense that Witchcraft is a religion. And always has been. And always will be.

No, of course Witches don’t practice their rituals the same way their Pagan ancestors did two thousand years ago. Neither do Christians still gather in catacombs to hold their agapes. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t followers of Christianity. Any more than Witches aren‚t followers of their own ancient religion. Of course Witches didn’t call their religion “Witchcraft” two thousand years ago. Neither did Christians call theirs “Christianity”. They didn’t even speak the same language! Any more than Witches did! Nor did they worship the same Gods! The Jewish religion once had many Gods (and Goddesses! ˆ see the work of Raphael Patai) and, according to archeological evidence, kept them well into Roman times, long after the monotheistic reforms were supposed to have taken place. (There’s something you won’t hear from your local Rabbi!) Early Christians had many Gods and Goddesses, too, as anyone familiar with the Nag Hammadi Library knows only too well. Yes, I’m speaking of “Gnostic” Christians, but remember they probably outnumbered the proto-orthodox Christians by the second century and, as recent archeological discoveries have shown, spread as far as the British Isles! What eventually became “normative” Christianity had to be painfully hammered out at Nicea and similar Church councils over the centuries. Most religions, including Christianity, have gone through just as many changes down the centuries as Witchcraft has, and yet we don’t doubt their continuity. Why should Witchcraft be held to a different standard?

When Christianity and Witchcraft first began to clash, Christianity certainly regarded Witchcraft as a competing religion. In the “Canon Episcopi”, a part of official Church doctrine, which may date back to the fourth century, Witches were accused of following the Goddess Diana. It wasn’t until later that the Church shifted its stance and began accusing Witches of devil-worship, instead. Although Margaret Murray is the scholar usually credited with the thesis that European Witchcraft was the remnants of the old, pre-Christian Pagan faith, she was by no means the first to suggest this. That honor should probably go to German linguist and folklorist Jacob Grimm (yep, that Jacob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame). However discredited some of Murray’s ideas may have become, to jettison her core thesis (and Grimm’s) may be throwing the baby out with the bath. Modern historian Carlo Ginzburg, in his exploration of the “Benandanti” in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy, has unearthed much well-documented evidence of the survival of ancient European Pagan spiritual practices well into the Christian era. Since this material has been widely accepted even by skeptics, could it also throw new light on that pivotal 1899 publication by Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches, which examines the survival of Witchcraft practices in Tuscany? If one defines “religion” in the broad sense used by scholars of comparative religion, it seems clear that Witchcraft does indeed meet the criteria. But Witchcraft is even more than that.

It is also the practice (or the “craft”) of magic. As we have seen, “wicca” may have come from a word that mixes elements of religion and magic in equal parts. Why is this so important? Because it underscores the idea that religion and magic are not mutually exclusive, that they can exist side by side harmoniously: that religious people can use magic to improve their lot, and that people who use magic can be spiritual, religious, “good” people. Academics had long tried to drive a wedge between religion and magic. This can be traced back to the pioneering work of Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough. Although modern occultists may honor him for codifying the “laws” of magic, he had another agenda. Like most social scientists of his day, he was overwhelmed by Darwinian thinking and began applying evolutionary theory to everything, even to areas where it didn’t fit. Consequently, magic, in Frazer’s view, was nothing more than a debased precursor to “true” religion. As he saw it, the evolution went something like this: Mankind started with a flawed version of cause and effect, called sympathetic and contagious magic. Then, as he evolved, he became animistic, invoking the spirits that inhabit every river, tree, and rock. Then, as he became still more enlightened, he became polytheistic, believing in many Gods and Goddesses, each with different functions. Finally, as man evolved into the paragon of reason that he is today (sic!), he became monotheistic, realizing there could be only One True God.

Granted, this model was quickly dismantled, at least in academic circles. Theodore Gastor, professor of comparative religion, took Frazer to task for this idea, in his preface to a newer critical edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Gastor rightly points out that even the most “primitive” magician does not typically perform magic without invoking a God or Goddess. And in even the most “sophisticated” monotheistic religions, there is still a goodly amount of magic, although it may be re-christened as “liturgy” and “prayer”. (In the West, the Catholic Mass is the parade example of magic as liturgy.) In fact, Gastor goes on to posit that religion and magic are inescapably found together throughout all cultures of the world, throughout all periods of history. Although academics have accepted this revision, non-specialists have been slower to catch on, and the Frazerian model still holds sway for many. It especially appeals to those “sophisticated” monotheists who believe they have already attained the zenith of theological ideals, and that the practice of magic could not possibly have a place in it. Apparently, there are even some new “Wiccan” groups that buy into this, seeing themselves as religious only, and holding themselves above such practices as magic.

To sum up, it seems that the current drive to separate Wicca from Witchcraft, to say that one refers to religion while the other refers to magic, is full of “Frazerian residue”. It appeals to those who are uncomfortable with the thought that religion and magic can happily co-exist. (I suspect that it appeals mainly to Witches who are recent converts from monotheistic creeds, yet have ported a certain amount of their previous belief system into their new faith.) Yet both historically and linguistically, it can be shown that Witch and Wicca are the same word, and that they both mean the same thing, a combination of religion and magic. I am perfectly aware, however, of something that linguists call the “etymological fallacy”, i.e. that a word means its etymology. We all know that the meaning of words can change over time. Maybe this has already happened to the word Wicca. Maybe too many people have too often repeated the newborn platitude, “Wicca and Witchcraft are not the same thing.” Perhaps it is already too late to turn the tide of opinion. Nonetheless, supporting this view would be a catastrophic mistake for a religion like ours. And more to the point, it could be politically dangerous.

It wasn’t long ago that Witches were sometimes arrested for the “crime” of “fortune telling”, e.g. for reading Tarot cards, etc. In many such cases, Witches were able to mount a successful defense by arguing that such magical practices were part of their religion. However, I can envision a scenario in the not-too-distant future where the prosecutor will counter with, “That’s not true! Her religion may be Wicca, but she was merely practicing Witchcraft!” In a culture like ours, in which all magic is seen as suspect by the increasingly political majority religion, it is perilous to allow a dark line to be drawn between religion and magic. Words like Witch and Wicca present us with a unique opportunity to erase that line. These words are the linguistic equivalent of a petri dish in which the cultures of religion and magic have been allowed to mix in equal proportions. I believe it is important for us to champion this unique mix of beliefs. When I first embraced Witchcraft as my path, I knew I was embracing both a religion and a practice of magic. Therefore, I will continue to proclaim that I am a Witch, and I am Wiccan, for it means the same thing. It is my religion, and it is my craft. It is my life.


Footnotes:
Most Recent Text Revision: February 25, 2006 c.e.

Proofing and editing courtesy of Acorn Guild Press.

Two Witches

Two Witches

A Modern Craft Fairy-Tale

by Mike Nichols

Once upon a time, there were two Witches. One was a Feminist Witch and the other was a Traditionalist Witch. And, although both of them were deeply religious, they had rather different ideas about what their religion meant. The Feminist Witch tended to believe that Witchcraft was a religion especially suited to women because the image of the Goddess was empowering and a strong weapon against patriarchal tyranny. And there was distrust in the heart of the Feminist Witch for the Traditionalist Witch because, from the Feminist perspective, the Traditionalist Witch seemed subversive and a threat to “the Cause”.

The Traditionalist Witch tended to believe that Witchcraft was a religion for both men and women because anything less would be divisive. And although the Goddess was worshipped, care was taken to give equal stress to the God-force in nature, the Horned One. And there was distrust in the heart of the Traditionalist Witch for the Feminist Witch because, from the Traditionalist viewpoint, the Feminist Witch seemed like a late-comer and a threat to “Tradition”. These two Witches lived in the same community but each belonged to a different Coven, so they did not often run into one another. Strange to say, the few times they did meet, they felt an odd sort of mutual attraction, at least on the physical level. But both recognized the folly of this attraction, for their ideologies were worlds apart, and nothing, it seemed, could ever bridge them.

Then one year the community decided to hold a Grand Coven, and all the Covens in the area were invited to attend. After the rituals, the singing, the magicks, the feasting, the poetry, and dancing were concluded, all retired to their tents and sleeping bags. All but these two. For they were troubled by their differences and couldn’t sleep. They alone remained sitting by the campfire while all others around them dreamed. And before long, they began to talk about their differing views of the Goddess. And, since they were both relatively inexperienced Witches, they soon began to argue about what was the “true” image of the Goddess.

“Describe your image of the Goddess to me,” challenged the Feminist Witch. The Traditionalist Witch smiled, sighed, and said in a rapt voice, “She is the embodiment of all loveliness. The quintessence of feminine beauty. I picture her with silver-blond hair like moonlight, rich and thick, falling down around her soft shoulders. She has the voluptuous young body of a maiden in her prime, and her clothes are the most seductive, gossamer thin and clinging to her willowy frame. I see her dancing like a young elfin nymph in a moonlit glade, the dance of a temple priestess. And she calls to her lover, the Horned One, in a voice that is gentle and soft and sweet, and as musical as a silver bell frosted with ice. She is Aphrodite, goddess of sensual love. And her lover comes in answer to her call, for she is destined to become the Great Mother. That is how I see the Goddess.”

The Feminist Witch hooted with laughter and said, “Your Goddess is a Cosmic Barbie Doll! The Jungian archetype of a cheer-leader! She is all glitter and no substance. Where is her strength? Her power? I see the Goddess very differently. To me, she is the embodiment of strength and courage and wisdom. A living symbol of the collective power of women everywhere. I picture her with hair as black as a moonless night, cropped short for ease of care on the field of battle. She has the muscular body of a woman at the peak of health and fitness. And her clothes are the most practical and sensible, not slinky cocktail dresses. She does not paint her face or perfume her hair or shave her legs to please men’s vanities. Nor does she do pornographic dances to attract a man to her. For when she calls to a male, in a voice that is strong and defiant, it will be to do battle with the repressive masculine ego. She is Artemis the huntress, and it is fatal for any man to cast a leering glance in her direction. For, although she may be the many-breasted Mother, she is also the dark Crone of wisdom, who destroys the old order. That is how I see the Goddess.”

Now the Traditionalist Witch hooted with laughter and said, “Your Goddess is the antithesis of all that is feminine! She is Yahweh hiding behind a feminine mask! Don’t forget that it was his followers who burned Witches at the stake for the “sin” of having “painted faces”. After all, Witches with their knowledge of herbs were the ones who developed the art of cosmetics. So what of beauty? What of love and desire?”

And so the argument raged, until the sound of their voices awakened a Coven Elder who was sleeping nearby. The Elder looked from the Feminist Witch to the Traditionalist Witch and back again, saying nothing for a long moment. Then the Elder suggested that both Witches go into the woods apart from one another and there, by magick and meditation, that each seek a “true” vision of the Goddess. This they both agreed to do.

After a time of invocations, there was a moment of perfect stillness. Then a glimmer of light could be seen in the forest, a light shaded deepest green by the dense foliage. Both Witches ran toward the source of the radiance. To their wonder and amazement, they discovered the Goddess had appeared in a clearing directly between them, so that neither Witch could see the other. And the Traditionalist Witch yelled “What did I tell you!” at the same instant the Feminist Witch yelled “You see, I was right!” and so neither Witch heard the other.

To the Feminist Witch, the Goddess seemed to be a shining matrix of power and strength, with courage and energy flowing outward. The Goddess seemed to be holding out her arms to embrace the Feminist Witch, as a comrade in arms. To the Traditionalist Witch, the Goddess seemed to be the zenith of feminine beauty, lightly playing a harp and singing a siren song of seduction. Energy seemed to flow towards her. And she seemed to hold out her arms to the Traditionalist Witch, invitingly.

From opposite sides of the clearing, the Witches ran toward the figure of the Goddess they both loved so well, desiring to be held in the ecstasy of that divine embrace. But just before they reached her, the apparition vanished. And the two Witches were startled to find themselves embracing each other.

And then they both heard the voice of the Goddess. And, oddly enough, it sounded exactly the same to both of them. It sounded like laughter.

Becoming a High Priest/ess

Becoming a High Priest/ess

Author: Valerie Voigt

Beginnings: I practiced for a while as a solitary for some years before beginning training with a family tradition Witch in 1978. She saw to my initiation in 1981 (as an eclectic, albeit with traditional background: this because I was not marrying into her family) . She told me to found a Coven, which I did, with her to guide me. After she crossed over to the Summerland, I later studied the Feri tradition, and was initiated by Victor and Cora Anderson in the mid ’80’s. Feri as I learned it is a non-degree Tradition, though some teachers use a quasi-degree system to give their students training benchmarks. I was initiated into a Gardnerian Coven in the late 80’s, and was raised to 3rd degree in 2008. I’ve been running Covens and/or training circles and/or open circles almost all the time since 1981. I continue to study. I lead the Gardnerian Coven Blackbirds.

In my Covens, we’ve always made a distinction between the High Priest/ess of the Coven itself (that’s an ongoing role with responsibilities to the group, and to the daughter Covens, and to the larger Pagan community) and the High Priest/ess of any particular ritual (that role is temporary and includes responsibility only for running that ritual) . Most of the time, the High Priest/ess of the Coven also High Priest/esses the rituals too; but we do require everyone, as part of their training, to design and perform both private group rituals and semi-public community Sabbat rituals.

One reason for a lot of the confusion over terminology is that the terms “priest/ess” and “high priest/ess” are used in multiple ways even within the older Traditions. To wit:

In most of the British Traditions (which I will, for the purposes of the present discussion, define as the Gardnerian Tradition and those Traditions with a clear genetic relationship to it, e.g., Alexandrian, Mohsian, Silver Crescent, etc.) every First Degree initiate is ritually announced to be a “Witch and Priest/ess.” Why, and what does this mean, exactly?

The “why” is twofold.

Firstly, it makes it harder for someone to infiltrate a Coven for the Inquisition and then turn around, turn the Coven in, and get away without any suspicion from the Inquisitors (after all, if any other spies have happened to see the initiation, it will be harder for someone to talk their way out of an accusation if the spies say, “I saw this person ordained as clergy in this religion!”) . Granted, by the founding of the Gardnerian tradition as we have it now, the Inquisition was no longer the threat it had formerly been (it does still exist–it’s now called the Office for the Defense of the Faith, and the current Pope used to head it–but it is much reduced in power and fame, and has softened its methods) . The British Witchcraft Act, however, had still not been repealed–and the legal implications and practical dangers of being publicly discovered as a Witch were very real, and not funny.

Secondly, and more importantly these days, as a Priest/ess you are directly responsible for continuing to pursue your own spiritual development, for listening to the Gods (not just praying to them or asking for Their help) , and for taking control of your own life and accepting and dealing with whatever responsibilities the Gods send.

It is in this latter sense that the widespread idea that “Every Witch (or even every Pagan) is a priest/ess” is true. In a way, “priest/ess” is a courtesy title, given to remind the newly initiated Witch of their responsibility–it does not qualify one to lead a group. It does, however, give notice of the responsibility to fulfill whatever obligations may arise (for example, in time of need, the person might have to step up to higher responsibilities in full knowledge of their own weaknesses) . In such cases, when the person shoulders such responsibility honestly and without pretension, the Gods always provide Their help.

As to what it means:

A First Degree initiate should, at least nowadays, be competent to perform their own rituals, on their own behalf–an activity that requires the basic priestly knowledge of how ritual works, including whatever details are required within their Tradition.

Likewise, in some of these same British Traditions, every Second Degree initiate is ritually announced to be a “Witch and High Priest/ess.” Again–why, and what does this mean, exactly?

There is some “courtesy” aspect to the title, as a Second Degree is not expected, routinely, to lead a Coven. Nonetheless, a Second Degree is expected to be able to lead rituals for the Coven. That is, s/he is able to competently fulfill the ritual role (if not necessarily the administrative, counseling, etc. etc. roles) of a Coven leader. If the regular High Clergy of the Coven must be absent for any reason, it falls to the ranking Coveners (who are typically Second Degree) to carry out the ritual duties. In some cases, a Second Degree will actually lead a Coven (normally under the guidance of the High Priest/ess of the parent Coven) –in this case, “High Priest/ess” is no longer a courtesy title!

Even in these British Traditions, however, the word “High Priest/ess, ” used in normal conversation, refers to a permanent Coven leader, who is always Third Degree.

Because, traditionally, Wiccan clergy are unpaid, most of us have full-time jobs that are not connected with religion–we are secretaries, engineers, factory workers, or whatever. Therefore, in most cases we have not had professional clergy training aside from what our own Elders, with the same limitations, were able to teach us. So, typically only the independently wealthy among us have the leisure to pursue a full-time ministry, or the professional training that allows them to do most aspects of the job well. How many independently wealthy Pagans do you know? I thought so.

As a result, our High Clergy usually have to specialize in only one or two of the jobs clergy are expected to do: administration, ritual, counseling, theurgy, thaumaturgy, teaching, herbology, divination, interfaith work, writing, public speaking, outreach, theology, social work–there’s probably a lot more. We simply do not have the time and resources to be good at more than a small subset of these tasks. Few Craft clergy are good at most of these–and almost all those with deep expertise in many of them have very gray hair, because they have had to learn by long years of experience. It’s not that our own teachers were lacking: but often their own talents were different from ours, so most of us have had to supplement our in-Coven training with outside studies. Sometimes we have the good fortune to learn from several different Craft teachers (I have been incredibly lucky in this regard) . Usually we have to supplement our training in other ways, such as by attending sessions at conferences such as PantheaCon, or taking evening classes in a specialty such as counseling.

The point I’m making here is that even talented, very well-trained Traditional High Priest/esses aren’t usually good at all of the tasks we associate with the job.

In less traditional Covens (including most of the eclectic ones I have known) , the title “High Priest/ess” is still usually given to a Coven leader. In those Covens that adhere to a strictly non-hierarchical approach, the term may not be used at all, or sometimes the term will be used only in its ritual sense–that is, ritual responsibilities are rotated amongst all the Coven members, and whoever is in charge of a particular ritual is “High Priest/ess” for the duration of that ritual only.

(This last use of the term “High Priest/ess” is startling to most Traditionalists, who, as Mike Nichols puts it, “would no more rotate the position of High Priestess in their Coven than they would rotate the position of mother in their family.”)

Like many others here, I have run into my share of kids who have read one book, have adopted a Craft name such as “Merlin” or “Ain Soph” (yes, really!) , and are running around calling themselves High Priest/ess. I usually manage to keep a straight face.

Unless there is good reason, I don’t confront them about it–and if I must confront them, I usually do so indirectly. For example, if I am at a gathering and some clearly unqualified self-appointed “High Priest/ess” is gathering a group of naive prospective students around his/herself–prospective students whom, according to my understanding of my Oaths, I must protect insofar as I can–I join the conversation and ask some question. For example, “How do you feel that elemental correspondences are affected by local geography?” or “How do you approach invocatory Work in your Tradition?” I continue the conversation until the pretender has clearly revealed him/herself. I never say, “You don’t have a clue!” because I don’t have to: they show it. And I don’t scold–there’s no need to humiliate anyone. They just need to be given pause to consider the need to learn more.

Most of the time, though, the Gods seem to take care of it. How? Well, if the person is just clueless and seeking ego-strokes, They usually provide the person with some embarrassing experience (such as freezing up in a group ritual, having to consult their one book, and discovering that the answer they need is not in the book) . On the other hand, if underneath the ego-indulgence the person really has the potential, sometimes the Gods simply dump a lot of responsibilities on the person and force them to handle the situation! I myself have seen this happen. In such cases, I encourage more experienced Coven leaders to give careful and discreet help to the chagrined-but-suddenly-serious person who is trying to be responsible. Why? Because there are far too many more Pagan seekers trying to find teachers than there are qualified teachers to teach them–and if the Gods show me someone who is truly and honestly trying to step up to the plate, it is my duty to help if I can.

I normally do not encourage teens to jump into the Craft, because serious pursuit of Craft studies requires so much time and energy: youngsters should be out having fun, discovering their identities, and exploring a lot of different things. So I tell them they should read widely, be careful, and check back as adults if they are still interested. But teenagers are not automatically unqualified to study, or even to lead a Coven: one Craft Elder for whom I have always had great respect first learned the Craft as a teen in the 1940’s, in an all-teen Coven led by a teenaged brother-sister pair. When the teenaged coveners had questions, the High Priest and High Priestess sometimes didn’t know the answers and had to go ask their parents–who were High Priest and High Priestess of a traditional Coven.

Likewise, I suspect that my own two daughters, who both grew up in the Craft, could readily run Covens: one is now 25, and the other is 19. But both, having seen for themselves how much work is involved, have so far declined.

I never sought to be a High Priestess–I had expected to simply be a quiet Pagan who did supportive behind-the-scenes work. And if I had known how much work (both in the sense of magical/spiritual Work and elbow-grease-type work) was involved, I probably would have run screaming–at least until the Gods dragged me back. Because if They want you, you don’t, in the end, have much choice about it!

To have the title of High Priest/ess, all you have to do is call yourself one. To actually be a High Priest/ess, you have to do the work. The title, by itself, isn’t a goal; at best, it’s really just a side effect.

Blessed Be!

RE-THINKING THE WATCHTOWERS

RE-THINKING THE WATCHTOWERS
or
13 Reasons Air should be in the North
by Mike Nichols
copyright 1989 by Mike Nichols

Introduction

It all started 20 years ago. I was 16 years old then, and a recent initiate to
the religion of Wicca. Like most neophytes, I was eager to begin work on my Book
of Shadows, the traditional manuscript liturgical book kept by most practicing
Witches. I copied down rituals, spells, recipes, poems, and tables of
correspondences from every source I could lay hands on. Those generally fell
into two broad categories: published works, such as the many books available on
Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished works, mainly other Witches’ Books of
Shadows.

Twenty years ago, most of us were “traditional” enough to copy everything by
hand. (Today, photocopying and even computer modem transfers are becoming de
rigueur.) Always, we were admonished to copy “every dot and comma”, making an
exact transcription of the original, since any variation in the ceremony might
cause major problems for the magician. Seldom, if ever, did anyone pause to
consider where these rituals came from in the first place, or who composed them.
Most of us, alas, did not know and did not care. It was enough just to follow
the rubrics and do the rituals as prescribed.

But something brought me to an abrupt halt in my copying frenzy. I had dutifully
copied rituals from different sources, and suddenly realized they contained
conflicting elements. I found myself comparing the two versions, wondering which
one was “right”, “correct”, “authentic”, “original”, “older”, etc. This gave
rise to the more general questions about where a ritual came from in the first
place. Who created it? Was it created by one person or many? Was it ever
altered in transmission? If so, was it by accident or intent? Do we know? Is
there ever any way to find out? How did a particular ritual get into a Coven’s
Book of Shadows? From another, older, Book of Shadows? Or from a published
source? If so, where did the author of the published work get it?

I had barely scratched the surface, and yet I could already see that the
questions being raised were very complex. (Now, all these years later, I am
more convinced than ever of the daunting complexity of Neo-Pagan liturgical
history. And I am equally convinced of the great importance of this topic for a
thorough understanding of modern Witchcraft. It may well be a mare’s nest, but
imagine the value it will have to future Craft historians. And you are
unconditionally guaranteed to see me fly into a passionate tirade whenever I’m
confronted with such banal over-simplifications as “Crowley is the REAL author
of the Third Degree initiation,” or “Everyone KNOWS Gardner INVENTED modern
Witchcraft.”)

Conflicting Traditions

The first time I noticed conflicting ritual elements was when I was invited as a
guest to attend another Coven’s Esbat celebration. When the time came to “invoke
the Watchtowers” (a ritual salutation to the four directions), I was amazed to
learn that this group associated the element of Earth with the North. My own
Coven equated North with Air. How odd, I thought. Where’d they get that? The
High Priestess told me it had been copied out of a number of published sources.
Further, she said she had never seen it listed any other way. I raced home and
began tearing books from my own library shelves. And sure enough! Practically
every book I consulted gave the following associations as standard: North =
Earth, East = Air, South = Fire, West = Water.

Then where the heck did I get the idea that Air belonged in the North? After
much thought, I remembered having copied my own elemental/directional
associations from another Witch’s Book of Shadows, her Book representing (so she
claimed) an old Welsh tradition. Perhaps I’d copied it down wrong? A quick
long-distance phone call put my mind at ease on that score. (When I asked her
where she’d gotten it, she said she THOUGHT it was from an even older Book of
Shadows, but she wasn’t certain.)

By now, I felt miffed that my own tradition seemed to be at variance with most
published sources. Still, my own rituals didn’t seem to be adversely affected.
Nor were those of my fellow Coven members, all of whom put Air in the North.
Further, over the years I had amassed lots of associations and correspondences
that seemed to REQUIRE Air to be in the North. The very thought of Air in the
East offended both my sense of reason and my gut-level mythic sensibilities.
There are good REASONS to place Air in the North. And the whole mythological
superstructure would collapse if Air were in the East, instead. If this is so,
then why do most published sources place Earth in the North and Air in the East?

 

Ritual Tampering

Suddenly, I felt sure I knew the reason! Somewhere along the line, someone had
deliberately tampered with the information! Such tampering is a long and
venerable practice within certain branches of magic. In Western culture, it is
most typically seen among Hermetic, Cabalistic and “ceremonial” magic lodges.
It is common among such groups that, when publishing their rituals for public
consumption, they will publish versions that are INCOMPLETE and/or deliberately
ALTERED in some way from the authentic practice. This prevents someone who is
NOT a member of the group from simply buying a book, and performing the rituals,
without benefit of formal training. It is only when you are initiated into the
lodge that you will be given the COMPLETE and/or CORRECTED versions of their
rituals. This is how such groups guard their secrets. (And it is a telling
postscript that many scholars now believe modern Witchcraft to have “borrowed”
its directional/elemental correspondences from ceremonial magic sources! What a
laugh if this was Crowley’s last best joke on his friend Gerald Gardner!)

I remember the first time I became aware of such deliberate ritual tampering. A
friend of mine had been making a study of the so-called “planetary squares”,
talismans that look like magic squares consisting of a grid of numbers in some
cryptic order. There are seven such squares — one for each of the “old”
planets. While making this study, he began coloring the grids (more for his own
pleasure than anything else), making colorful mini-mosaics, using first two
colors, then three, then four, and on up to the total number of squares in the
grid. Six of the planetary squares yielded pleasing patterns of color. Then
there was the Sun square! Against all expectation, the colors were a random
jumble, with no patterns emerging. Thus, he began his quest for the CORRECTED
Sun square. And I became convinced of the reality of ritual tampering.

 

The Watchtowers

All that remains, then, is for me to assemble all the arguments in favor of the
Air-in-the-North model, which I have now come to believe is the CORRECTED system
of correspondences. The remainder of this article will be devoted to those
arguments, each with its own name and number:
1. AIRTS: This is perhaps the strongest argument. In Celtic countries, the four
elemental /directional associations are referred to as the “four airts”. And it
is a known fact that this tradition associates Air with North. While it is true
that some writers, familiar with ceremonial magic (like William Sharp and Doreen
Valiente), have given “tampered” versions of the airts, it is a telling point
that folklorists working directly with native oral traditions (like Alexander
Carmichael and F. Marian McNeill) invariably report the Air/North connection.

2. PARALLEL CULTURES: Although arguing from parallel cultures may not be as
convincing, it is still instructive to examine other magical aboriginal cultures
in the Western hemisphere. For example, the vast majority of Native American
tribes (themselves no slouches in the area of magic!) place Air in the North,
which they symbolize by the Eagle. (Aboriginal cultures lying south of the
equator typically have different associations, for reasons I will discuss next.)

3. GEOPHYSICAL: If one accepts the insular British origins of elemental
directions, then one must imagine living in the British Isles. To the West is
the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean (i.e. water). To the East, the bulk of
the European land mass (earth). South has always been the direction of fire
because, as one travels south (toward the equator), it gets warmer. Which
leaves North as the region of air, home of the icy winds of winter. (These last
two associations would be reversed for cultures in the southern hemisphere, for
whom north is the direction of the warm equatorial region, and south is the land
of ice.)

4. HYPERBOREAN: In fact, an ancient name for the British Isles was “Hyperboria”,
which literally means “behind the north wind”, thus associating north and wind
(air) once more. The inhabitants were themselves called “Hyperborians”, and the
phrase “at the back of the north wind” (the title of one of George MacDonald’s
faery romances) is still current. Of all the winds of the compass, it is
unquestionably the north wind (Boreas), bringer of winter, which is perceived as
the strongest and most influential (cf. Robert Grave’s goddess fantasy “Watch
the North Wind Rise”). You don’t hear too much about the other three cardinal
winds.

5. SEASONAL: Many occultists associate the four seasons with the four cardinal
points, as well. Hence, winter = north, spring = east, summer = south, and
autumn = west. (To be precise, it is the solstice and equinox points which
align with the cardinal points.) Again, in most folklore, winter is associated
with air and wind, as the icy blasts that usher in the season. In spring, it is
the earth which arrests our attention, with its sudden riot of blooms and
greenery. Again, south relates to summer, the hottest season (fire), and west
relates to autumn.

6. DIURNAL: Occultists also often associate the cardinal points of a single day
to the four compass points. Thus, midnight = north, sunrise = east, noon =
south, and sunset = west. (Please note that we are talking about TRUE midnight
and TRUE noon here, the points halfway between sunset and sunrise, and between
sunrise and sunset, respectively.) These associate nicely with the seasonal
attributes just discussed. It is easy to see why sunrise should equate to east,
and sunset to west. And, once again, from the perspective of the British Isles,
the sun rises over land (earth) and sets over the ocean (water). South is
related to noon because it is the moment of greatest heat (fire). Leaving the
“invisible” element of air to be associated with the sun’s invisibility, at
midnight.

7. MYTHOLOGICAL: In Celtic mythology, north is invariably associated with air.
The pre-Christian Irish gods and goddesses, the Tuatha De Danann, were “airy”
faeries (later versions came equipped with wings, relating them to sylphs). The
Book of Conquests states their original home was in the north, “at the back of
the north wind”. And when they came to Ireland, they came in ships, THROUGH THE
UPPER AIR (!), settling on the mountaintop. (It has always struck me as odd
that some modern writers see mountains as a symbol of earth. The crucial
symbolism of the mountain is its height, rising into the air, touching the sky.
Virtually all Eastern traditions associate mountains, favorite abodes of gurus,
with air. A CAVE would be a better symbol of earth than a mountain.) In Welsh
mythology, too, Math the Ancient, chief god of Gwynedd (or NORTH Wales), is
specifically associated with wind, which can carry people’s thoughts to him.

8. YIN/YANG: Many occultists believe that the four elements have yin/yang
connections. Both air and fire are seen as masculine, while earth and water are
seen as feminine. If air is associated with the north point of the magic
circle, and earth is east, then one achieves a yin/yang alternation as one
circumambulates the circle. As one passes the cardinal points of east, south,
west, and north, one passes feminine, masculine, feminine, masculine energies.
This alternating flux of plus/minus, push/pull, masculine/feminine, is the very
pulse of the universe, considered of great importance by most occultists. That
it was equally important to our ancestors is evidenced by standing stones in the
British Isles. At sites like the Kennet Avenue of Braga, the tall, slender,
masculine, phallic stones alternate precisely with the shorter, diamond-shaped
yoni stones.

9. GENERATOR: This argument flows out of the previous one. Practicing magicians
often think of the magic circle as a kind of psychic generator. Witches in
particular like to perform circle dances to “raise the cone of power”. Hand in
hand, and alternating man and woman, they dance clockwise (deosil) around the
circle, moving faster and faster until the power is released. This model has an
uncanny resemblance to an electrical generator, as man and woman alternately
pass each of the four “poles” of the magic circle. These poles themselves MUST
alternate between plus and minus if power is to be raised. This means that if
the masculine fire is in the south, then the masculine air MUST be in the north.
If the feminine water is in the west, then the feminine earth MUST be in the
east. If any adjacent pair were switched, the generator would stop dead.

10. MASCULINE/FEMININE AXIS: When you look at a typical map, north (the cardinal
direction) is at the top. Any north-south road is a vertical line, and any
east-west road is a horizontal line. Likewise, a “map” of a magic circle makes
the vertical north-south axis masculine (with air and fire), while the
horizontal east-west axis is feminine (earth and water). This makes logical
sense. When we look at the horizon of the earth, we see a horizontal line.
Water also seeks a horizontal plane. Feminine elements, considered “passive”,
have a natural tendency to “lay down”. Fire, on the other hand, always assumes
an erect or vertical position. Air, too, can rise upward, as earth and water
cannot. Masculine elements, being “active”, have a natural tendency to “stand
up”.

11. ALTAR TOOLS: In modern Witchcraft, there are four principal altar tools, the
same four tools shown on the Tarot card, the Magician. They also correspond to
the four Tarot suits, the four ancient treasures of Ireland, and the four
“hallows” of Arthurian legend. And, like the four elements, two of them are
feminine and two of them are masculine. The pentacle is a shallow dish
inscribed with a pentagram, representing earth, and is here placed in the east.
The womb-shaped chalice, symbolizing water, is placed in the west. They form
the horizontal feminine axis. The phallic-shaped wand, representing fire, is
placed in the south. And the equally phallic-shaped athame is placed in the
north. They form the vertical masculine axis. (The gender associations of cup
and blade are especially emphasized in the ritual blessing of wine.)

12. AXIS SYMBOLISM: In nearly every culture, the vertical line is a symbol of
yang, or masculine energy. The horizontal line is yin, feminine energy. When
the vertical masculine line penetrates the horizontal feminine line, forming the
ancient Pagan symbol of the equal-armed cross, it becomes a symbol of life, and
life-force. Place a circle around it or on it, and you have a circle-cross or
“Celtic” cross, symbol of everlasting life. (Please note the importance of the
EQUAL-armed cross. If one arm is longer or shorter, then the four elements are
out of balance. The Christian or “Roman” cross, for example, has an extended
southern arm. And many historians have commented on Christianity’s excess of
“fire” or zeal. Some versions actually show a shortened northern arm,
indicating a dearth of “air” or intellectual qualities.)

13. ASTROLOGICAL: The astrological year is divided into four equal quadrants,
each beginning at a solstice or equinox. And each quadrant is governed by one of
the four elements. Which element can be discovered by examining the exact MID-
POINT of the quadrant. For example, the first quadrant, beginning at the winter
solstice (north) is governed by air, which rules 15 degrees Aquarius, symbolized
by the Man or Spirit. The second quadrant, beginning at the spring equinox
(east) is governed by earth, which rules 15 degrees Taurus, the Bull. The third
quadrant, beginning at the summer solstice (south) is governed by fire, which
rules 15 degrees Leo, the Lion. And the fourth quadrant, beginning at the fall
equinox (west) is governed by water, which rules 15 degrees Scorpio, here
symbolized by the Eagle. Thus, north, east, south and west correspond to air,
earth, fire, and water, and to man, bull, lion, and eagle, respectively. If the
last four symbols seem familiar, it is because they represent the four elemental
power points of the astrological year, and their symbols appear in the four
corners of the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The same
figures were later adopted by Christians as symbols of the four gospel writers,
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)

If those are the arguments in favor of Air-in-the-North, where are the counter-
arguments in favor of Earth-in-the-North? Surprisingly, I’ve heard very few.
The most common by far is “But we’ve always done it this way.” Not too
convincing. However, no matter HOW persuasive my arguments may be, many have
countered that magic doesn’t lend itself to rational arguments. It’s what FEELS
right that counts. True. And there’s no denying that many practitioners do
just fine with earth in the north. Granted. Still, if they’ve never tried it
the other way, how would they really know?

My challenge to my fellow practitioners then is this: give Air-in-the-North a
shot. Just try it on for size. See what it feels like. And not for just a
single ritual. It’ll take several tries just to overcome your habitual ritual
mindset. And nothing is as habitual as ritual! So in order to give this a fair
shake, you’ll have to do a whole series of rituals with air in the north. And
go into it with an open mind. Like all magic, if you decide ahead of time it
won’t work, it won’t. Then, once you’ve tried it, compare it to your old method.
Ask yourself what’s different, if it worked any better, and why or why not. And
let me know. I’d enjoy hearing about your experiences.