January 4, 2009

Becoming A Traditional Witch

People sometimes ask me what they need to do to become a "Traditional Witch". Unfortunately, It's not really possible to answer such questions in a simple, objective, or universal way. There are many kinds of witchcraft that are "traditional"- witchcraft is, after all, a widespread phenomenon, very broad in scope and detail. I can, however, answer them from my own perspective- and from the perspective of the great people I have known who have called themselves "witches"- sorcerers and women of Art who stayed close to the ground and even closer to an uncommon sort of wisdom and cunning that even today, long after my experiences with them, keeps me in awe.

Before I can begin to lay out some guidance towards the path of Traditional Witchcraft as I understand it, I need to discuss the notion of belonging- and I will do so by discussing what it means to belong to a religion- even though Traditional Witchcraft doesn't necessarily have to be someone's "religion". I chose religion because it is a force that touches most lives in an extraordinary way, and many understand it well enough.

You can look at my criteria of "belonging" with regard to any organized way of thinking or being that includes people other than yourself within its boundaries. To "belong to a religion", you must consent to its labels, titles, and participate in its traditional activities or characteristic patterns of ritual or behavior. You must consent even further to let yourself see the world in the way the religion requires- you embrace its beliefs and its worldview.

If (for instance) you call yourself "Wiccan", participate in Wiccan rituals on a regular or semi-regular basis, and see the world in the particularly Wiccan way, (you have a belief that all gods are one god, in the threefold law, etc.) Then you are Wiccan. The very same measures would indicate who is Catholic, or Buddhist, Muslim, or any religion.

Now, before I can continue on to the topic of Traditional Witchcraft, I must talk about Traditional Paganism- and I use this as a very general, inclusive term.

A Wiccan ceases to be Wiccan when they cease doing these things I mention above. They religiously become a Traditional Pagan when they begin calling themselves so, either by embracing- as a descriptive label- the basic term "Traditional Pagan" or any of its more specific branches (such as Asatru or others); when they take part in some form of Traditional Pagan ritual-practice (which can be very minimalist) and when they see the world as Traditional Pagans see it.

The Bare Bones of the Traditional Pagan Worldview

The "general" Traditional Pagan worldview is simple, indeed; it says, very basically, that:

-The Land under our feet and all around us is the presence of a most sacred, living reality;

-That we and all other forms of life, seen or unseen, are in a timeless and eternal web-work of sacred powers that all interact with one another and all depend on one another;

-That the Underworld- a timeless and mysterious "region" of spiritual powers, itself the constant source of life, mysterious experiences, and numinal forces, is "beneath" the land but also within all things, and that all beings who die arise later in the Underworld as spirits or strangely existing entities- though certainly not all of them become desirable, nice entities. These "hidden beings" or hidden folk go on interacting with us in many strange ways through the medium of the Land itself- for the Land is a gateway to the unseen;

-Lastly, "Traditional Pagans" will often feel connected to a place on the land through which they experience the sacred, become attached to that place and assume the roles of guardians of it. They try to stay warm and close to it. This is a common tendency, and an ancient one.

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Traditional Pagans don't have a formulaic view of ethics and morality; it is more diffuse and open to situational necessity. They will do what they have to do to keep their families safe and their land safe. They will reverence life, reverence the memory of the dead, and try to stay well while respecting the needs of others, so long as those others return the respect. That's about it, as far as I've seen. Any other moral or ethical rules or imperatives are embraced by the individual, or discarded by them; those are personal choices. But all choices have an impact on this world and in the unseen world, and a person goes to the Underworld to face the good and bad consequences of their choices in this world.

"Reincarnation" is best left for Eastern religions and new-agers, however a very ancient notion of "rebirth" does seem to exist at the bottom of the true "Old Ways" of ancient Europe- though this native idea is a vision of a soul's "cycle" through many conditions and forms of life, both in the unseen world and the world that is seen. We are all passing through many conditions of life, even since our own births, and this notion can be logically extended beyond the grave- death is not a "severing away" from life, but an alteration of life and re-integration into life's web in many new ways. Rebirth isn't about "floating into a new body"; it is about the mythical activity of shape-shifting.

A person can, pursuant to many old teachings and beliefs from many places, become a spirit or even an animal due to their own rebirth cycle; perhaps, if Fate weaves it so, they can "re-become" another person- but such is the nature of life's flow, the "new" person isn't the same as the last. Each form of life is unique in the moment in which it exists. Yet, a mysterious connection exists between all things, and even across what we call "time." These mysteries could give a person much to think on- maybe even a lifetime's worth of thinking. And that would not be a wasted life! But thinking is not itself enough: we need experiencing, too- searching and doing.

To become wise enough to consciously begin to shape one's own "cycle of rebirths"- that would be a good goal. Perhaps to become wise enough to transform the unconscious compulsions that rule our daily lives, and invade our dreams- that might be a better goal. But enough on that now.

Traditional Pagans will reverence the land in private ways, and attempt to become "seers" of how the hidden powers of a place manifest at any given time. Becoming such a seer and honoring those powers and their appearances is really the heart of "traditional" ritual. "Sacred seasons", or sabbats, or the hidden seasons- these things vary from place to place. One thing is certain- some days are doors. Some weeks or months or seasons are doorways to a deeper experience of the land and the self, as well as the broader community of life. There is no easy "calendar" round for these doorway-days; one must discover them. Some are very well known from the Isles and Europe generally- Beltaine, Midsummer, Samhain, etc; others are less well known. Every Traditional Pagan will, following along with their land, adhere to their own inner and outer calendrical journey.

If one feels drawn to worship "Gods"- and indeed, traditional pagans from the distant past did call many of the other living powers in this web of life "Gods"- then they must be either discovered through the inner exploration of the Land and the self, or one must answer a deep call from within the heart which inclines one towards certain pantheons from the past. From that point, one must build a ritual life that takes these old living powers and their myths into its heart.

But one doesn't require "Gods" in their life in some formal, constructed way; the simple, vast, and timeless power of the Land and all things- called by me the "Weird"- is really enough for a "focus" on the sacred and everywhere-present naturalness of life, and for a moral focus. More important in the modern day than "Gods" is a reverential focus on "Ancestors"- for the Gods were, after all, the first Ancestors of all, so ancestral veneration is, in its own way, a return to a real polytheism such as people had long ago.

There are many ways to live in this world. You may choose "none of the above" with respect to what I have been discussing. In my way of seeing, just living respectfully and contentedly on your land, being in awe of the beauty and power of the earth and sky, reverencing the ancestors and/or the spirits of your dead family and friends, having great get-togethers with your living family and friends, and generally being a non-meddlesome, non-destructive, sincere person is enough. Such people might call themselves "Traditional Pagans", too- and they'd deserve the title.

From One Meadow, The Road Goes Deeper

If you want to be a "Traditional Witch", then there is yet another branch of the road to take. And that branch of the road doesn't have to come from being a Traditional Pagan; for me it did, and I think that the spiritual background and philosophical orientation of a Traditional Pagan is the ideal "starting point" for a Traditional Witch. I think it is ideal given its simplicity and its focus on the most important realities of life: that of the Weird, the Underworld, the notion of the sacredness of ordinary things, the reverence it has for the ancient Land, so full of light and dark powers, and respect for the ongoing existence of the dead within the land.

But there are witches out there who come out of other backgrounds. Some were even Christian, but trust me- I've seen them play witch for a few years and then vanish back to some church somewhere, or seen them sit in church the entire time, with their witchcraft never being anything other than a Saturday night amusement for them and their friends, a kink, a joke.

I think that Christianity's war on witchcraft and mysticism has closed it's borders completely to witchcraft. I don't believe that the genuine, traditional Christian worldview- from any actual, historical denomination- can sustain a healthy or powerful practice of witchcraft. It is simple to see why: its own bible strongly condemns witchcraft and interaction with familiar spirits- and witchcraft, in the true, historical, and non-Wiccan sense of the word, requires deep interaction with familiar spirits.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, if you want to be a "Traditional Witch", you have to establish yourself in a comfortable worldview, a comfortable mental "place", a place where you are not held back by fear and absurdity, and then you must walk the path that goes below, to the deepest places of human experience.

Traditional Witchcraft is about consciously accessing hidden realities, and doing so to a very intense and extreme degree. It is about accessing extra-sensory reality, or the Underworld itself, looking into the hidden regions of the Weird, all without losing consciousness of what you are doing and experiencing, and "returning" to this seemingly ordinary world with the extraordinary powers you encountered on that "other side" still being carried within you.

One of those extraordinary powers will become your "familiar" power or spirit- a helper, an ally, who will be bonded to you by reciprocal oath and pact and service. He or she may come because one of the ancient spirits that men called "Gods" sends him to you, or it may come on its own, seemingly. Mysterious benefactors in the Unseen may come and grant you a familiar; one can never tell. You may have to find one through great struggle; there is no single formula, though there are some traditional formulas for those who are canny enough.

You must go, empowered by your familiar, in a state of intense "otherness"- a trance- and encounter the many strange powers and forces of the "other side" in alert wakefulness, and return to this world in wakefulness, never succumbing to the danger, confusion, or unconsciousness that overtakes most people who try to travel far from the beaten path of "ordinary" people.

Then, you must mediate- transmit- in some tangible form- the powers you encountered and "brought back" from the unseen world, and you must mediate them such that tangible or perceivable changes occur in "this world" due to your mediation.

Can you remove those fears and depressions or anxieties from your mind that have plagued you for years, through your power? Can you do it for others? Can you make a sick person whole? Can you see vengeance befall a man who has grievously harmed others? Can you use your power to gaze into the sky, a deep pool, or the painted symbols on cards to divine the future? Can you call to the dead, and meet them on your "flights" into the unseen, or see them rise out of the ground of their graves to speak to you through your extraordinary senses?

If you can do this, then you are a "witch". You are a witch in the historical, traditional sense of the word. And that's all. Your real initiation is not given to you by other humans; it is given to you when you cross into the Unseen, encounter powers there, discover power, and return in full wakefulness to integrate that power, guided by your will, into your life or the lives of others. From this point, life goes on, but to where, none can say- for the most cunning witches can even transform their destiny beyond this world, when they must journey into the Underworld for the final time, at death. No matter where the spirits of the people of this world end up, they remain in the same place- the same Weird-wholeness of reality, and hopefully in cycles of wisdom and peace.