Who’s lovin’ a coven?

Have you ever read Tom Sawyer (the Mark Twain novel, not the lyrics to the admittedly awesome Rush song)? There’s a great scene in which Tom is whitewashing a fence. Naturally, the young fellow is none too impressed with spending a nice summer day on this sort of craptastic task. Well, along comes the none-too-bright Ben Rogers, who starts teasing Tom about being unable to enjoy the glorious day. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing the fence is actually a blast, and then oh-so-generously allows Ben to essentially pay him to have a go at it. Tom suckers other kids into a second and third coat, and gets their personal treasures out of them in exchange. Tom is a little bastard. An admirable one, if you’re the sort to cheer on Loki or all the other tricksters (which I most certainly am).

When someone is able to convince you that coven leadership is powerful fun, or a real pleasure, or a path to easy esteem, renown and respect…well, let’s just say you’re not Tom in this situation, and like his peers, you’re gonna lose your marbles.

Witches can be a secretive lot, but I’ll let you in on one of our little secrets. Leadership will age you, and not in a pleasant fine wine kind of way. See this gerald-brusseau-gardnerpicture of Gerald Gardner? He’d been leading a coven for a year or two when it was taken, and he’s only twenty six years old in this picture. That’s the traditional High Priesthood expression that means the Summoner was supposed to bring the wine and what the hell are we supposed to do with this kool aid, and if this happens again we’re drinking the bloody kool-aid. Well….ok, I exaggerate. A little bit. Especially with GBG’s age.

Not long after my 2nd degree, when I first contemplated getting a coven together, I had a dream in which an old, deceased friend appeared before me, wearing chains made of amber and jet beads and imploring me not to make the same mistakes she had made. “You’ll be visited by three coven officers tonight,” she moaned, “The Maiden of Circles Past, the Summoner of Circles Present, and the High Priestess of Circles Future.”

This, by the way, is why cakes and ale right before bed is not a good idea. Or burritos and beer. Same dif. I didn’t listen to those spirits. Unlike Scrooge I know how to banish spirits (especially vodka, which I am banishing at this very moment), and I learn the hard way.

Anyway, coven leadership. Yeah. Really, it’s not as bad a picture as I’ve painted above. It’s certainly got its rewards—when a student figures something out and has an “aha!” moment, or completely stumps you with a question so smart-assed you’re convinced Einstein is renting a room in their colon (get it? smart-assed? Einst…oh never mind). One of my favorites is when you see a student’s confidence come out—when they speak the words of an invocation and it’s come alive for them, seemingly speaking itself. They’re no longer standing there, eyes squeezed shut as they worry about not missing the next line, or skipping a word. That real moment when they’re able to let go, and fly. Moments like that are the ones that make the headaches worthwhile. But that’s the key—those glorious moments aren’t often about YOU. They’re about others, and what they are able to accomplish. Your job is to sit in the hot seat and try and direct a herd of cats in an aviary in the middle of a rainstorm. Their job is to learn and grow and develop—and if you’ve chosen coven members well, they will. Your growth, then, is tied to theirs for a while. It’s invested in them, as they become a larger focus. You’re like a witchy bodhisattva, like it or not, only without any perks, guaranteed proximity to enlightenment or saffron-robed monks wisely nodding their multi-generational approval. Or at least I never got any monks. Monkeys, maybe.

Running a coven is a lot more than Sabbat strutting or Esbat emoting. There’s prep work; lesson planning; group dynamics to consider and to which attention must be paid. Sometimes there are personality conflicts to deal with. Magic and ritual can force people to face issues they’ve not faced in the past—Jung and Starhawk both wrote of that happy little roller-coaster. Initiation doesn’t mean we’ve transcended all of our own issues either and anyone can suffer from “initiitus” and a runaway ego if they’re not careful and self-aware. Sometimes you’ll need a good smack in the jaw yourself, and enough humility to take that smack from your students and initiates when necessary.

And let’s say you do a good job. A really good job, and start to gain a wider reputation in your local community, or on an even bigger level. They start to call you an Elder (if you share my last name that would make you an Elder Berry, which your father smells like). Well, now there’s a whole new set of issues that crop up. However, my wonderful trad sister Yvonne Aburrow has already addressed this recently, and you can see what she had to say in her blog. If the Gods bear me any affection I’ll never have to sit in that Elder seat.

Running the show means, in the end, responsibility. And like all responsibilities it’s one that should be considered carefully. Reaching the appropriate degree in your tradition doesn’t mean you have to run out and start running a group (and let’s not forget the 23 year olds out there who clutch their dog-eared copies of Nietzsche and cry into antique glasses of absinthe about their inability to find an appropriate student to whom they can pass on their vast store of Arcane and Mystical Knowledge, generally culled from way too much Lovecraft). There is always more to learn. Marge Simpson thought she could teach piano by staying one lesson ahead of her students; this will not work for you. Wicca is one place where you really can’t fake it until you make it.

Really, in the long run, leading a coven is a lot like raising a child. People will tell you how rewarding it is, and it does have rewards. But they’re hard-earned and you pay for them in blood, and sweat, and tears; anyone who tells you different has a fence they need painted.


Too Much of the West in Wicca

Yeah, yeah. I know what you might be thinking. Maybe that this title is a call to arms of some sort; a cry for a healthy dollop of Vedic thinking and philosophy to be slapped into the Craft. But no, that’s not it. Or perhaps you might think I’m taking a principled stand again men in ten-gallon hats slappin’ iron and squaring off on the main street of some dusty Texas burg, spittin’ tobacco juice and itching to see who can draw and fire faster in this town that ain’t big enough for both of ’em. OK, corral those thoughts (yeah, I wrote it; whatcha gonna do about it, pilgrim).

What I’m getting at is the element of the West, water. And to be uncharacteristically frank, there’s too much watering down of Wicca. It’s been watered down enough that one could drink it with some scones on a lazy English afternoon.

Think of a dog. Maybe a beloved family pet you had growing up, or one you have now. Imagine those things that come to mind—a dog is playful, loyal, loving. It protects, loves unconditionally, and becomes part of the family. Now expand that idea outwards. If we include wolves in the ‘dog’ category we bring in new associations—a pack animal; a hunter; a stalker of the night, but not something that curls up at your feet—or helps you herd your sheep. Expand it further, to encompass all the animals of the Canidae family—jackals, hyenas, foxes, coyotes and others. Our concept of what a dog is, if we broaden it this much, starts to become meaningless. Sure, there are similarities—all are quadrupeds, for example—but vast differences separate a fox, hyena, coyote and Pomeranian. At some point, by making the mental category ‘dog’ too broad we lose the ideas of playful, loyal and protective pets and family members. After all, no one trusts a dingo with their baby. We might decide that a dog is whatever we say it is, but the category has become so diluted and so expansive that it starts to become meaningless in any productive, communicative sense. Try and mate a fox and dingo and see what happens. It gets worse when you decide that ‘dog’ means ‘pet’ and therefore includes ‘cat’, ‘parrot’, ‘rabbit’ and ‘goldfish’.

You can see where I’m going with this.

When Wicca first came into the public consciousness it was quite specific—an initiatory priesthood that venerated a specific Goddess and a specific God. It gathered in small groups; practiced rites that followed a pretty specific structure; and held pretty specific teachings (even if they weren’t as clearly defined and dogmatic as those found in certain other religions). It didn’t take long for different streams to arise, such as the Gardnerian, Alexandrian and Tubal Cain / Cochrane paradigms, yet each of these shared, at their hearts, the same basic concepts of initiatory priesthood of a lunar Goddess and her Horned Consort. Simply put, that’s what Wicca was / is. The Gards, Lexies, and Cochranites (for lack of a better term) were different breeds of the same animal, but not different species. Even when Wicca began to spread out it still maintained these core concepts. When people couldn’t locate a coven to join there was enough info out there that clever, thinking individuals and groups could assemble a workable system based on the GAC paradigm, just as they had done with the Golden Dawn system after Crowley, Regardie, Fortune and the rest had written their books.

Then came the 60s and North American counter-culture, when Wicca’s core conceptual structure was altered. From Z Budapest, Starhawk, Martello et al it became politicized; through Buckland and Cunningham it was simplifiedwayne—watered down enough that it ceased to reflect the original image it had held. Of course everything grows and changes, but in a rush to be as accessible as possible Wicca was watered down into a general paganish gruel—easy to digest and suitable as spiritual invalid food. Where it had been a specific species within the genus witchcraft, in the family of neo-paganism, in the order of paganism it instead was expanded by too many to try and be too much. The idea that “Wicca is whatever you want it to be” was bandied about, becoming in and of itself a credo of banality and a broad, hazy and ill-defined trend—the computational lingusitics of new pagan religions. As Brooks and Russell wrote in A New History of Witchcraft, “pop-culture witchcraft is sufficiently vague in structure and content to qualify more as a ‘lifestyle’ than a ‘religion”. It didn’t start out that way.

Now it’s not my intention to disparage the spirituality or experiences of a tremendous number of modern neo-pagan, self-professed Wiccans. Rather, I would ask them to consider Christianity (stop snarling and do it)—at what point does a self-professed Christian cease to be such when s/he does away with ideas like sin, scripture, salvation, sacrament or even Christ? Can one be a Muslim while rejecting the Qur’an, the hadith, the shahadah, and denying belief in Allah? I would say no. And is there harm in a Muslim saying that his or her beliefs are Islamic, and not Christian? No. And the reverse is true as well. There is no harm in forging one’s own spiritual path, but there is no strength is diluting the language and practice of one group to make it into bite-sized chunks that are bland and suited for every palate.

You can only dilute something so much before it is no longer what it was when you began. I’ve heard many a self-proclaimed Wiccan speak of the Goddess in terms that make one think of Jesus in drag—they haven’t erased the old files of their spiritual computers, and are not seeking Wicca, but rather a Christianity they find more palatable. They seek something they can call their own, but make in their own image. The clouds of Heaven replaced with rolling, forested hills and the fires of Hell with some poorly-understood bastardization of Hindu concepts of karma. The scourge brandishing Lord of Death and Resurrection becomes as gentle as a lamb. He becomes the carrot-munching huntable, but never the ravenous hunter.

Wicca, by its very nature, has always been subversive, counter-cultural and niche. It doesn’t exist to proselytize, expand at a rapid rate or seek the status of a world religion—it stands at the gates of defeated and dead but oh-so-popular dogmas and yells ‘fuck you!’ There is a reason many come to trad Wicca through rebelliousness, and why many trad Wiccans aren’t pure haters of subversive figures like Crowley, or Georgia O’Keefe. Wicca is a tailored suit, meant to fit some, but shapeless on others, and has never been ‘one size fits all’. As people fear and disparage their bodies, Wicca calls for ritual nudity. When society diminishes Woman, Wicca elevates her to priestess-hood. It doesn’t pat your head and say ‘there, there’; it says, “get up, wipe your nose and soldier on!” It has no Devil on which to blame one’s failings; no original sin to blame for the world’s. When people say that it is whatever they wish, it’s exactly that—they wish. It is not a path that needs to adapt to the follower, or to alter itself for public acceptance. It does not need public acceptance or legal recognition; nor does it need representation in ecumenical council or Goddess fish on the bumper. Wicca is for the few, not because it is elitist but because few are the ones who can and will approach it on its own terms. It is a demanding path and a rigorous one because it challenges not just social mores but also the ego of its practitioners. Where is the challenge to ourselves and our compatriots when we do little more than cross off the Christian letterhead and scrawl ‘Wicca’ in its place? If you’re calling something Wicca, but you’ve done away with its Gods, ritual structure, sacred tools and teachings, practices and personal challenges then you may have a viable system for you, but you don’t have Wicca.

Wicca is a fire in the blood. It is not water in the veins, and to my way of thinking, trying to make it so misses the entire point. After all, the witches of Leland’s Aradia didn’t spend their time turning the other cheek to tyrannical political and religious hegemony. Why, then, should we allow a raging torrent of a spiritual path to become a trickle because some are too afraid to let their feet get wet? Galadriel may be willing to diminish and go into the West. I, for one, am not.