In Praise of Wicca

It’s rare to see a serious esoteric practitioner of any sort saying anything positive about Wicca, so I will forgive any raised eyebrows. There is a common sort of elitism among occultists and magicians which has them separating out “real Witchcraft” from “Wicca” (or, as I occasionally see it, “Wiccanism”, which gives me a chuckle). I get where it comes from, and see some valid reasoning behind it, but those reasons are often overblown by an all too human desire to reduce everything outside one’s own expertise down to its simplest form to make it more easily digestible or a simple tendency to get caught up in appearances. But let’s all be honest with ourselves:

Like a lot of people who got involved with the occult in their school days, I got my real start with Wicca. Specifically, in response to a bunch of questions I had been asking them for years, and interests I had otherwise expressed by being a tree-hugging sort of kid, my parents got me a copy of Scott Cunningham’s Living Wicca for Christmas. I doubt if they realized that it was a sequel to his prior Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, but it didn’t really matter to me. I dove in with gusto, did the suggested exercises, and had my young imagination fired by the poetic imagery of the Horned God and lunar Goddess. As a small child, I had instinctively lived in a magical world and always felt a thirst for more, and Living Wicca gave it to me in a structured way.

It didn’t take me more than a few years to “graduate” to Hermetic magic—specifically the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri (PGM)—but I have to say this: the Wicca stuff worked. Don’t get me wrong, the PGM material worked better, being more efficient in almost every way, but I got my desired results through Wiccan ritual and spellwork, and in a package which suited my poetic sensibilities quite a bit better. Wicca has one really significant advantage over a lot of other published forms of ritual magic, and that is its immediate practicability. I have yet to encounter a book on, say, the Golden Dawn or Aurum Solis systems, let alone the grimoires, which have much to offer to someone who doesn’t have the resources to put together a pretty intense set of ritual tools, access to a room dedicated to ritual, and some mastery of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew pronunciation (if not translation). Sure, you may argue that a clever magician can do many of those rituals without most of the tools, but it usually isn’t presented that way, so the grand armory of magical weapons comes off as an obstacle to a lot of beginners, especially young ones. I’ve known more than a few budding magicians, especially during my teenage years, who despaired of ever being able to fulfill all of the material “requirements”, and the stuff they had to study was no encouragement at all, so they never got around to actually doing any of the magic until someone came along to clarify. Wicca, on the other hand, offers relative simplicity; many of the spells and rituals of even the more strictly initiatory British Traditional Witchcraft can be done with stuff most people have in their kitchen. This puts it on a level of accessibility with the many forms of folk magic out there (PA Dutch brauch, African American Hoodoo, or what have you), but with some of the aesthetic, energetic, and spiritual depth of ritual and ceremonial magic (Western high magic, Vodou, Tantra, etc).

Just as I mentioned in my previous discussion on Neopaganism in general, Wicca is notable for its broad influence. Neopaganism as a wider community wouldn’t exist without Wicca, and much of ritual magic would have remained obscure if not for American do-it-yourself Wiccan groups like the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn and “witch shops” like Herman Slater’s Magickal Childe. The world of the occult, the world over, has never been a closed loop. Ideas spread; practices mix; traditions interbreed. Thus, no system is “pure”. Wicca is an excellent example of a syncretic tradition which not only wears its building blocks on its sleeve, but also succeeds in making a coherent whole out of them.

Compare to, say, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which looks like nothing so much as a hodge-podge of disparate elements chosen seemingly at random from around the world. While the ingenuity of the Golden Dawn founders cannot be denied, the product of their work does not, even today after over a century of innovation, have the feel of a whole to the point where most serious practitioners very much have to pick and choose and dynamically reconstruct it to their own preferences. Wicca is very much a similar pick-and-mix of magical technique, ritual structure, and metaphysical gamesmanship, but a typical Wiccan ritual coheres without a symbolic element out of place. Granted, a practitioner who overly prioritizes ecclecticism can ruin a perfectly good ritual (the classic “Let’s invoke Ereshkigal and Thor tonight… in Latin!”), that’s an issue which can crop up anywhere.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the curious coincidence of numerous “family traditions” and schools of “traditional witchcraft” which suddenly appeared after the popularization of Wicca. Isn’t it interesting how every form of “hardcore”, “traditional” witchcraft looks a hell of a lot like Wicca while its representatives insist that they’re somehow The Original—citing the fact that they don’t particularly care for Gerald Gardner and don’t call themselves a “religion” as examples of how traditional, underground, and spooky they are? And let’s not start on the ridiculous claims of “hereditary witchcraft”—that Wicca is somehow invalid because one has to be “born a witch”.

None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with non-Wiccan Witchcraft, either. It’s just that for every exorbitant  historical claim made in the past by Wicca—which most Wiccans these days neither believe nor continue to spread as anything more than a curiosity—non-Wiccan Witches have made up a half dozen equally silly claims to gain the admiration of the credulous. One prominent teacher and writer of his own system of “Traditional Witchcraft” is rather infamous for long-winded screeds slamming Wicca, and damn near every other magical tradition, in the midst of laughable claims to the effect that the torture-induced confessions of accused “witches” during the inquisitions and witch-hunts of Europe are proof of the ancient provenance of his idiosyncratic brand of Witchcraft. Seriously, he’s got whole books full of the stuff, aside from what he posts on Facebook. The upshot is that the practice he recommends is a fairly effective one, but it’s obvious that it mostly derives from the PGM with a veneer of Germano-Celtic mythological imagery; you could, quite frankly, get all of it from a single decent book on Wicca, but without the ugly rants and poor understanding of history.

Similar to the influence issue, Wicca, like general Neopaganism, is often accused of being shallow. My experience shows, however, that 98% of everyone in the spiritual world are quite content to stay close to the surface. Again, that’s not a bad thing. It may be at times annoying when people are presenting themselves as experts when they’re barely treading water, but quite a lot of those involved are sincere and simply haven’t felt the need or found the opportunity to delve any deeper. And Wicca presents numerous opportunities to go deeper when people are ready for it. Some of the best magicians I’ve met identify as Wiccans of one sort or another, many Gardnerian or Alexandrian, and the spiritual potential of Wicca is nothing short of a Western Tantra for those who know how to engage with the symbolism. (The stang and cauldron, after all, rather closely resemble the Natha trishul and dhuni.) There is, ultimately, no reason why a Wiccan shouldn’t be able to accomplish any magical or mystical task within the context of Wicca if they are willing to put in the same amount of effort with the same degree of creativity as anyone else. Moreover, the incredible amount of material available to the Wiccan Witch means that there are a lot of solid examples to draw from.

None of them above should give the reader the impression that I find no flaws in Wicca. I just find that it is no weaker or more flawed than anything else out there. Our practices are stronger for trying to find the strengths in other ways of doing things, though the human tendency is to dismiss or vilify whatever does not fit the observer’s own way. There’s nothing but egotism in this, egotism which a solid magical practice ought to be dissolving. I’m certainly guilty of it, myself. But I hope that a revisit to topics which are often dismissed by self-styled “serious occultists” will improve my own practice. If I see someone else being successful, it shouldn’t matter to me if I like what they call what they’re doing. Sri Dattatreya acknowledged birds and prostitutes as his preceptors; the least the rest of us can do is be open to learning from our fellow practitioners, even if terms, symbols, and forms differ considerably. That, after all, is one of the great strengths Paganism has over the more restrictive Abrahamic faiths. We’d be fools not to use it.

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In Defense of Neopaganism

It’s been said, I forget who by, that “a popular occult movement is a stupid occult movement”. I may substantially agree to this, but you could remove the word “occult” from the statement and it would hold just as strongly. Popular movements are almost always impelled by our lowest natures—natures which cannot, and should not, be denied, but also shouldn’t be given free reign either. This is as true in spirituality as it is in the hard sciences, politics, or anywhere else. But none of this is to say that the mainstream is inherently stupid.

As odd as it sounds, there is not just one “mainstream”; each culture, subculture, and even counterculture will have its own mainstream which defines the mean opinions, assumptions, ideals, fashions, and other trends within the grouping. Even the smallest of populations—say, your neighborhood coven of Witches—will have a mainstream, even if it has a rather weak current by which to pull dissenters along. A mainstream can be dangerous on a large scale, as it then has the torrent of a spring melt-flooded river which can crush the spirits and the bones of those who try to resist in unsubtle ways. The good of such a current, however, is that those who are unable to devote all of their personal time, energy, and resources to constant research and refinement will still have access to a sort of progress, so long as they are content with much of the research, refinement, and, most pointedly, interpretation and implementation being done for them. We all must do this to some degree in most areas of life; there is simply not enough time in the day to be constantly questioning every facet of culture, so we very often just have to give a lot of things a pass so that we can focus on whichever particular happens to be a priority. Harm can come of being too passive, of course, but there is also wisdom in focusing on what is within one’s own sphere of influence and trying to make that useful to others rather than trying to horn in on an area in which one has no expertise or power and trying to steer an unfamiliar ship in a storm.

Neopaganism serves as just such a mainstream for the occult world and, to a large extent, the world of alternative spirituality in general. Despite (sometimes alarmist, sometimes smug) reports to the contrary, Neopaganism appears to be fairly healthy as a movement, though you will see very different states of health (as with anything) depending on where you are and how you choose to look for it. Even the New Age, which still holds a central place in the marketplace of popular alternative spirituality, takes most of its cues from what it sees Neopaganism doing. Generally, there is a process of whitewashing over the aspects which are unsavory to a mindset still largely tinged with a liberalized form of Abrahamic moralism—just look at what they did to Yoga!—but the ideas and practices are generally still very recognizable for their roots in Witchcraft and Hermeticism. Moreover, had it not been for the popularization of Neopaganism, many of what are today considered to be classics of Western occult spirituality and magical practice would not be so readily available: the works of Eliphas Levi, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Israel Regardie, William G. Gray, and numerous others would likely have fallen into the dustbin of the history of ideas, and those who wanted their books would be scrambling to afford out-of-print editions. Moreover, almost none of the greats of more recent years through to the present would be there! Scott Cunningham, Raymond Buckland, Paul Huson, Joseph H. Peterson, Lady Sheba, Doreen Valiente, John Michael Greer, Mark Stavish, and numerous others, would not have seen print, or at least not mass print, if not for the relative popularity of Neopaganism. Yes, even your favorite boutique Luciferian LHP Traditional Qlippothic Witchcraft publisher of 666 copy limited editions (Only For Serious Occultists, of course) would have no market to sell to if not for the Neopaganism which brought Llewellyn and Weiser to prominence by selling Cunningham, Buckland, Regardie, et al. So, dark-hooded Satanists, thank your local Wiccan coven and Druid grove for your ability to find Lord Beelzebub Cindersoul’s Grimoire of Dusk on Amazon for $12.49. (Don’t take any of this too personally; I own some great books from Theion Publishing and Scarlet Imprint and listen to more than my share of black metal.)

The same can be said of community: without Neopaganism, there would be no occult community. While it’s true that lodge organizations such as the Freemasons did traditionally serve such a function, and that magical groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn did predate the majority of Neopaganism’s history, it’s also true that HOGD imploded quickly and spectacularly while Freemasonry is in decline (and is not welcoming to women). These, and groups like them, certainly influenced the rise and dissemination of Neopaganism, but Neopaganism has largely absorbed a number of valuable lessons from them while rejecting what was not useful to its own communal life. While there are any number of private working groups of magicians, Witches, and Druids, solitary practitioners who mostly keep to themselves, and invitation-only salons, Neopaganism largely operates in the open. Covens advertise themselves on social media to let people know what’s going on in their area; shops and event spaces operate on the open market to draw in even the most casually curious of patrons; Pagan Pride Day celebrations happen in most major cities of the US; Druid groves offer public or semi-public rituals for major solar feast days in the same way that Hindu temples have public pujas celebrating a variety of holidays throughout the year. Such events are very often the first taste of ritual many people get, or at least their first taste of group ritual outside of the churches in which many grew up. They also present opportunities for meeting people who do things differently and learning from them, making contacts with other practitioners for later exchanges, and making friends who share similar interests and values. As with any forum, it is true that many people involved won’t be worth the trouble, but some will, and those few can make quite a difference for someone trying to learn, grow, and connect.

A final point to make concerns the common complaint that Neopaganism is for only “shallow” practitioners. This goes back somewhat to the idea of the mainstream, but is worth visiting in its own right. I’m far from the first to make the observation that not everyone in a given spiritual or religious movement is immediately interested in leadership or clergy roles, nor even the highest initiations and deepest practices. And, as hard as it for a lot of magicians and mystics to understand, that’s okay. There’s good reason why magicians and mystics have always been in a hard minority in almost every human society: they require specialized skill sets demanding a lot of time and effort. It just cannot be everyone’s priority. Just as with scientists and engineers, what magicians and mystics “bring back with them” can benefit anyone who wants it even if they would not have found it on their own. Consider the Nathas, Aghoris, and other sadhus in India as an ancient example: large groups of people may gather around them, attend their dhuni rituals, seek their blessings, request their magical aid, and go to them for spiritual guidance, and bring back what they can to their workaday lives without ever even considering becoming initiates themselves. Everyone contributes as they can, bringing offerings to the dhuni, giving food and other necessities to the sadhus, and shelter to pilgrims coming from afar to make the visit, and nobody is left feeling like they do not have a place in the spiritual life of the community. It can be the same among Witches, Druids, and Heathens.

Those of us who do spend most of our time going deeper into magical and mystical practice often have a tendency toward hermitage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it definitely aids in our practice. But it also behooves us to occasionally come out to public events, or get to know our local metaphysical shopkeepers, teach classes and workshops, and otherwise make connections and spread what we’ve learned. Not only are we benefiting others, we are also making connections which can benefit ourselves. Community is a necessity, not a luxury; we are social beings, like it or not. “Society” may even constitute an ontological plane unto itself, just as worthy of the occultist’s attention as the realm of spirits and gods. And Neopaganism is not only the most accessible but also the broadest umbrella among alternative spiritual communities. Skepticism of community involvements is smart, but we shouldn’t let egotism and elitism get in the way of potential valuable experiences.