Progressive Witchcraft

A glass figurine of the Mother Goddess
Turner Row Glass Art
An example of the evolution of religious
depictions and religion itself
A short while ago, I finished reading the book Progressive Witchcraft by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone which amazed me. It really expresses an interesting view of witchcraft which I would like to share with you.

The word progressive in itself signifies a process which is carried out or advances gradually/in stages. By giving this adjective to the term witchcraft, the authors automatically implied from the very start that they think that the Craft changes in time, from generation to generation if not from day to day. This is obvious if we compare what we think to be Prehistoric witchcraft with that of the Middle ages or the 20th century and modern-day witchcraft. 

An important factor in this change is simply evolution. Now, I don't just mean the evolution of mankind but also the evolution of ideas, religious beliefs, individuals etc. Conventions and traditions have always existed, but some of them are replaced by new ideas which, again, in time become new traditions/conventions. This process goes on and on...cyclically if you will. Witchcraft (in this case Wicca) has to change in time, as does everything else, to fulfill the needs of its practitioners. 

Let us take a Greek from the 1st century BC, for example. He is traditional in his own way; he worships the local gods, visits the temple when necessary, prays to his gods before battles etc. He simply did what most of his contemporaries did. Even in the  Middle ages there were some alternative religions to Christianity to which a number of individuals turned, but they couldn't freely practice their beliefs because of the fear of being killed, or even worse, tortured. Religion becomes flexible when it is forced to do so. Examples of this flexibility are Witches using ordinary kitchen knives for their athamés, normal house brooms for sweeping the circle, gathering medicinal herbs under thee pretense of collecting culinary herbs etc. These may seem to be silly examples, but it is exactly these kinds of examples that can give us a clear insight into the evolution of a religion. I have to repeat myself when I say that a whole new religion emerged from underground when the Witch Laws were repealed in the 1950s. There was now a whole new group of people with similar beliefs that wanted to practice then freely. With the advancements in technology, it soon came to be that Witches could meet each other over the Internet and even today, one of the most common ways for Witches to get their supplies is by ordering them from various web-shops. This wasn't possible before because of several reasons: 1) there was no Internet; 2) when a person would come out with their beliefs and wants, they would be executed. It's quite simple. We now have more religious freedom than our ancestors, believe it or not...at least when it comes to the West. 

Figurine of a Mother
Kouphovouno, Sparta,
cca. 65000-5800 BC
With the emersion of people like Gerald Gardner and Sanders in the 20th century, a type of cult of personality came into existence. Up to now, I never thought about it that way, but then I read the aforementioned book which gave me this new perspective on things. And they truly were celebrities of their time (at least in the circles we're talking about). They were equally scandalous to their contemporaries as some movie stars/musicians are to us now. The reason why they were so popular and influential is because they were among the few who managed to break out on the scene given the conditions of the time. Namely, there weren't many books on witchcraft published back then so, basically, the only way for someone to learn anything about this was to find a circle or coven. Only then could some information be available.

Of course, with the advancement of technology and growing group of people interested in the subject, there came a fruitful time of publishing books on witchcraft, creating related websites and so on. All of this quickened the deterioration of the cult of personality. More personas emerged examples of which are Raymond Buckland, Scott Cunningham, Starhawk, Zsuzsanna Budapest, Deborah Lipp, Janet & Stewart Farrar, Doreen Valiente, Gavin Bone, Dion Fortune and others. All of these people expressed their thoughts and some even confronted tradition. This is how several "leaders" came to be and with them, several traditions. Though, along with this, certain dogmas that existed up to then were forgotten/abolished (believe it or not, even Gardner had a number of "rules" which he expected his followers to live by blindly, simply because they were rules...but this was just another religious dogma which someone decided to tear down).

Among these dogmas was the belief that a person could become a Witch only by initiation, or someone whose ancestors were directly linked to Gardner and witchcraft (i.e. if you were born into the Craft). In a way, witchcraft became a thing of inheritance and this is, in my opinion, quite elitist. Though many of the people I mentioned in the above paragraph would agree with me on this point because they were the ones who fought against this sort of elitism. Though there can be a good side to this ancestralism/traditionalism. The bad side is, obviously, the hierarchical scheme that goes along with it in the sense that a person who isn't initiated into the Craft is hierarchically in a lower position than a person who is initiated even though they may have the same beliefs and practice them in the same way. The good side is that it gives a sort of frame in which people can feel secure; people know exactly who to turn to for information because these people (mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers) had been the ones transferring knowledge the whole time (if we are, in fact, talking about an inheritance-based society).

It was just a matter of time before Witches would become independent  and this time came with the publication of more and more books which made them all the more procurable, along with the numerous websites which were free, none the less! Ancestry stopped playing an important role just like the cult of personality did. It was now the individual that was important! At the same time, the obligatory bitheism of Wicca was overthrown and replaced by a universal polytheism since each individual was free to worship their own gods. For example, in stead of everyone in Ireland acknowledging Cernunnos and Aradia, there were those who worshiped Roman gods. Why not?

Gavin Bone and Janet Farrar defined progressive witchcraft as a description of the evolution of the Craft and not a tradition in the classical sense (therefore it cannot be compared to the Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Dianic or any other tradition since it is eclectic and gives a great amount of freedom without raising any barriers. 

But don't get me wrong, the authors of Progressive Witchcraft were not against tradition. They actually think that tradition (or anything else from the past) teaches us something valuable from which we have to get a certain piece of advice or warning (or both). Nobody has made mistakes in their past; they merely did what they thought was right. We may define some things as mistakes, but who are we to judge others? I have to agree with them on this subject. I believe that the past isn't something that has to be buried and never spoken of again but rather something that should be analyzed and remembered in order for us to learn from it. 

One important difference between witchcraft of the past and the present is that we can now see a much bigger importance of religious/deity-related aspects in contrast to the magickal aspect which has somehow lost its significance. This isn't bar or good, simply an observation. Before, you could read about magickal and ceremonial works and rites for this and that everywhere, but now...well I personally know very little Witches that do magick on a (semi) regular basis (if at all). Everything is based on the spiritual aspect nowadays. I think that it came to be this way simply due to the course of events. We just aren't forced to do fertility rituals in hopes of the land becoming more fertile because all we need to do is go to the grocery store for food. Women don't have to do love magick to find a good husband because they are emancipated enough to approach the man they like without negative consequences and so on. You get the picture. Magick just doesn't play such an important role in our lives anymore. But this makes the unseen forces that our ancestors dealt with all the more fascinating to us, which makes us want to understand them.

Another difference is in the roles the High Priest and High Priestess play in Wicca. Before, the three-degree hierarchical system of knowledge was present in every tradition (except the Alexandrian tradition with its five degrees). I say "knowledge" because a practitioner could gain the title of second/third degree only after they had grasped a certain amount of knowledge. I would compare this to passing exams in school. When someone says they're on their third year of college, that doesn't mean that they're superior to someone who is only on their first year, but simply that this person had more time and the will to pass the necessary exams to continue onto the next year. Wicca functions in the same way. The individual can't proceed onto the next degree until they have grasped that amount of knowledge otherwise they won't be able to cope with the obligations that this degree comes with. It is because of this that the Priest/Priestess was revered. These people had to be skilled, adept individuals that had the third degree and that were initiated. Bear in mind that all of this was quite hard to achieve considering that amount of information that was available as well as the number of like-minded people. A modern idea has since developed that each practitioner is his/her own Priest/Priestess, which is quite logical. People are now forced to work alone or in smaller groups of two to five people due to practitioners being so scattered. In addition to this, Wicca is a religion that demands constant learning, practicing and activity. Passivity isn't an option here. I personally know more solitary Witches than those that work in groups. These Witches start learning from book like "a guide for Solitaries" from this or that author and use their common sense to adapt group rituals for themselves. 

This idea of hierarchical Priesthood was encouraged by the concept that initiation was only possible inside the circle. Many modern practitioners are opposed to this idea, and I will admit that I belong to this group. Why would contact with the Divine be possible only in a certain space? This contact is, in my opinion, more possible when one works along in meditation than in group works where everyone is concerned with the course of the ritual, what others are doing, what everyone has to say/do etc. And besides, the gods, if you believe in them, don't follow the earthly time; they only know of the biological clock of every human being. With the development of these ideas came the notion that the Priest/Priestess aren't the ones that do the initiation but rather the Goddess and God. After all, what is initiation than the direct contact between the human and the Divine? This is how many people will describe the possibility of self-initiation/self-dedication to the "traditionalists". From this, we can conclude that initiation doesn't even have to take place in the circle but actually anywhere....as long as you are open to it.

As I said at the beginning of the post, the evolution of religion includes the religion of each individual.  Wicca is often defined as a "mystery religion" because these mysteries are left for the individual to discover, and not for groups.  Each person will perceive them differently. Jung described this process as the journey through the Ego (conscious self), Id (the subconscious), Anima (hidden female aspect of every man), Animus (hidden male aspect of every woman) and the Shadow (the part of the subconscious that the Ego doesn't recognize, that he represses). Only when all of these aspects are unified can the individual experience these mysteries.

And the conclusion? Don't just blindly follow everything you read in books. Think about what makes/doesn't make sense to you. See what you can change to fit your needs, but without changing the core. Throw out the information you don't need, but keep what you find useful. Be free and don't be afraid! :D

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