Eclecticism and Wicca

The term "eclectic" is often frowned upon because it somehow implies indecision, uncertainty, or random mixing of styles. For those that are not familiar with this word, the adjective "eclectic" refers to something that includes many different things (i.e. a mix of them all) with the intention of utilizing them to get the best out of them. An eclectic (a person who is eclectic) is a person who chooses to incorporate the best (which is sometimes subjective) out of many different ideas into their own belief system. The implications stated above are indeed very inaccurate because eclectics don't randomly pick out ideas, nor are they indecisive about what they want (on the contrary, they are very decisive, because it is necessary to know what you want in order to make it) and they are also very certain of their choices.

Of course, eclecticism doesn't only refer to religion; it can refer to artistic styles, designs, philosophies and many other areas of life. I see no reason why a dish couldn't be defined as eclectic if it incorporates, for example, spices from one country, culinary techniques from another and an exotic main ingredient from a third country. 

When talking about eclecticism in religion, it should be differentiated from syncretism (which I previously talked about in my post on paganism and dual faith). Syncretism is usually defined as combining (usually two) different religions. While both terms include some sort of "mixing", syncretism usually happens between two religions and they are often combined completely. Eclecticism implies that there can be more than two religions involved and they don't have to be combined as two wholes, but certain parts from them can be taken according to personal choices. 

Speaking form a Pagan point of view, I will be talking about eclecticism in Paganism and Wicca, but this does not mean that it cannot occur in other religions/spiritual paths. I have encountered Atheistic Wiccans and Catholic Pagans some of which would call themselves eclectic because of this, while some try to follow both paths and are essentially syncretic.

Nevertheless, I call myself an eclectic Wiccan. It is from this perspective that I speak when I say that it really bothers me when people look down on eclectics. There is a lot of talk about "eclectics" and "traditionalists" in Wicca which imposes intolerance (and not to mention elitism). The "traditionalists" are usually those who follow Wicca completely, and not even Wicca in general, but a specific Wiccan path. These individuals are initiated into the same path. Eclectic Wiccans are often Solitaries (i.e. Wiccans who work alone or occasionally in small groups) and this Solitary path most often leads to one being eclectic. Solitaries are usually not initiated into any coven or Wiccan path and are able to explore many traditions, work with many groups and are constantly open to new ideas. This is why the terms "Solitary" and "eclectic" often go hand in hand. Although, someone can be an eclectic Wiccan but still be a part of a coven. In fact, there has been a rise in eclectic covens in the last couple of decades! Just a short note, I will often use the terms "solitary" and "eclectic" synonymously, so please do not take any offense to this. It is simply stronger than me. :)

In reference to the previous paragraph, I hope you will not misunderstand my words. I have nothing against traditionalists or initiated Wiccans. I completely support them! I just dislike the fact that some individuals among these groups look down on their fellow eclectics. Generalization is out of the question here; not all traditionalists and initiated Wiccans look down on eclectics, but I feel that I have to write this post for the minority that does.

But to get back to the topic, eclectic Paganism is a very broad subject because this can mean that someone takes some ideas from Wicca, some from Asatru, and some even from Shamanic practices. The combinations are endless. This is why I would like to focus on eclecticism in Wicca.

Eclecticism and Wicca

Wicca (and many Pagan religions at that) are very liberal when it comes to beliefs; they allow their followers great freedom and the power to "customize" their own spiritual path. This has led to many beliefs that Wicca as one spiritual path doesn't exist; that it is not well-defined, and as a result, it has not been taken seriously. While doing a bit of research on the subject, I came across some information in Deborah Lipp's book The Study of Witchcraft: A Guidebook to Advanced Wicca. I would like to quote her because I don't see how I could summarize this any better. She basically says that the following points are that which all Wiccans (including eclectics) have in common:
  • Polarity: Wiccans may be monists, meaning they believe all gods are ultimately One. They may be duo-theists, meaning they believe that, in Dion Fortune's words, “All Gods are One God, and all Goddesses are One Goddess.” They may be hard polytheists, meaning they believe that each individual deity is precisely that, an individual and not an aspect or component of a larger One or Two. Whatever they believe, however, they work with polarity—ritually and spiritually. However many deities a Wiccan may worship, there is always only one goddess and one god on the altar during ritual.
  • Immanence: The sacredness of the human being is essential to Wicca. This can be described in many different ways: “If that which thou seekest, thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee”; or “Thou Art God”; or “An' it harm none, do what you will.” Not everyone will embrace every description, but a Wiccan will always have some creed that includes the idea that the gods/goddesses within us are our truest guides.
  • Nature: Wiccans celebrate holidays that are attuned to the seasons and perform rituals attuned to the phases of the Moon. They worship nature deities, almost always including Mother Earth in some form, and they recognize the sacredness of the physical, including the human body and sexuality.
  • Magic: Not all Wiccans practice magic, but Wicca as a religion accepts that magic is real, something that people can do, and something that people are allowed or encouraged to do.
  • Circles and quarters: The ritual structure of Wicca can vary enormously, but a cast circle with four quarters, representing or corresponding to the four elements, is the fundamental format of Wiccan ritual. My friend Ben Schuman describes the fifth element, spirit, as the “sometimes Y” of Wicca. Some Wiccans add a fifth element and some do not, but air, fire, water, and earth are always present.
This information comes from the chapter of her book entitled "Modern Wicca Described" and I have to admit that I found it tremendously helpful and very easy to understand. So, I hope you won't mind if I quote Ms Lipp a few more times in this post.

I would like to add that Wicca, although it allows a lot of freedom to its practitioners (even the traditional ones), does have its boundaries, or better said determinants, as does any spiritual path. There must be some sort of "checklist" which can help people determine who is a Wiccan and who isn't. I believe that the above list is that checklist. Even if a path is eclectic and does incorporate many ideas (even from different religions) into its system, there has to be some framework into which it will fit and thus be called Wiccan. It is therefore necessary for any eclectic Wiccan, who calls themselves that, to sit down, have a heart to  heart with themselves and find out whether or not they really do fit into this framework. Even if they don't, there's nothing bad in that! Since Wicca is essentially a part of Paganism, which is a much broader term, it may be more applicable to the individual at hand.

Traditionalism Contrasts Eclecticism

Tradition is usually defined as a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another. The oldest standing belief system in Wicca that is indeed passed on from generation to generation is the Gardnerian tradition. So, when one talks about traditional Wicca, Gerald Gardner simply has to be mentioned. Gardnerian Wicca is thought to be the first Wiccan tradition and almost all the Wiccan paths that exist today stem from it. The result of this is that most Wiccan paths have the same characteristics which contrast to eclectic Wicca.

For some reason, I love tables; I find them practical, easy to understand any tidy. So here's a table that compares the main characteristics of traditionalism to eclecticism (thanks again to Deborah Lipp whose scheme served as a basis for this table, although I added a few more of my own notions).

Traditional Wicca
Eclectic Wicca
1. Lineage No lineage necessary
2. Initiations Self-initiated or not initiated
3. Degree system Movable degrees
4. Oath of secrecy/loyalty/brotherhood No oath
5. Group/coven work Solitary practice
6. Book of Shadows Book of Shadows (different perception)
7. The Rede and Rule of Three are acknowledged Importance of the Wiccan Rede and Rule of Three

Let's go into detail, shall we?

1. Lineage

Gerald Gardner
Traditional Wiccans, such as Gardnerians, call themselves as such only if they were initiated by another Wiccan and if that person was also initiated by a Wiccan and so on. If one follows this pattern, or this lineage, they will come to Gerald Gardner or one of his initiates. Basically, according to traditional Wiccans, one may become a Wiccan only if they are initiated by a Wiccan. If a person isn't initiated, they aren't seen as a Wiccan in the eyes of most initiates because, as Deborah Lipp stresses, "it takes a witch to make a witch" (by the way, Gardnerians use the term "witch" and "Wiccan" interchangeably, although I do not agree with this and I explained my view in this post).

Eclectic Wiccans, disagree with this. They claim that just following the main principles of Wicca (such as the points stated above; polarity, immanence etc.) is enough for a person to call themselves a Wiccan. Also, with the popularization of self-initiation (or better said self-dedication), eclectic Wiccans were able to officiate their beliefs in a way without having to follow strict traditional rules. This leads us to the next topic.

2. Initiation / Self-initiation

Janet Farrar being initiated by
Alex Sanders
As I have explained, traditional Wiccans believe that initiation is necessary for a person to be called a Wiccan. The person performing the initiation has to be qualified (i.e. has to be a Third Degree initiate, more on this later) and has to be initiated from another traditional Wiccan. 

Eclectic Wiccans believe that anyone can "initiate" themselves because each person can be their own priest/priestess. The Wiccan belief of immanence mentioned before explains this nicely; if the God/Goddess are a part of every person, then every person has the potential to be a priest/priestess - it is just a matter of waking up that aspect. Ultimately, each person can bless and initiate him/herself in the name of the God/Goddess. Of course, this shouldn't be done light-heartedly, although many Wiccans. This is how self-initiation was popularized (if you want to read more on the subject, you can have a look at my post on self-initiation).

3. Degree systems

The three-degree system has been adopted in most Wiccan traditions. It is an essential part of the Gardnerian tradition (which explains the first sentence) and, as its name states, the system is based on three degrees of initiation, each of which is given to the initiate after a certain period of time (traditionally a year and a day, or sometimes more). The initiate has to have certain knowledge and experience to be initiated into a new degree and, upon initiation, is given new tasks and more knowledge (and often more obligations in rituals).

In contrast, eclectic Wiccans don't really have a degree system. Self-initiation is basically enough for most eclectics. Also, degrees wouldn't mean much in this context because eclectics mainly work in variable groups which don't always have the same members or the same number of members present at rituals. This is why the priest and priestess are decided upon before each ritual so one often finds that each ritual is lead by different people (which has proven to be quite interesting and useful in my experience). This is why I used the term "movable" degrees to refer to this way of functioning because nobody really has a degree, although they change roles as the situation indicates (these roles simply resemble the roles of a certain degree initiate).

4. Oath of Secrecy

Traditional Wiccans, such as Gardnerians, take an oath of secrecy at their initiation ceremony vowing not to reveal certain things to noninitiates. This oath is inseparable from the oath of brotherhood and loyalty and is supposed to date back to Medieval times when Pagans and witches were prosecuted for their beliefs. There was no way to be sure that someone wouldn't inform the Inquisition of your practices and beliefs, but people tried to slim the chances down by initiating only family members (which is another connection to lineage) and by making each initiate take an oath of secrecy. 

This practice is no longer needed as religious tolerance has grown considerably. Most eclectics believe that taking such an oath is simply a remnant of an old tradition which no longer makes sense in the modern world where one can find all the information they need on the Internet or in books. Also, and sadly in my opinion, people's words no longer guarantee their respectability. Before, a man (or woman) was only as good as their word. This is not the case nowadays. But this is a different topic. 

5. Coven or Solitary Work

As Deborah Lipp says, "initiated Gardnerians work in covens. In fact, they use the word 'coven' to refer to a group of initiated Wiccans, not simply to any group gathered in Wiccan worship". This does not exclude the option of working alone every now and then, although anyone who looks at a traditional Wiccan ritual will clearly see that it is intended to be performed in a group. Group/coven work is though to be more powerful because more people and thus more energies are involved.

In comparison, solitary Wiccans don't always work alone either. They sometimes meet in groups (which are sometimes referred to as covens, although this term has a slightly different meaning in this context than it does in a traditional sense). Still, solitary Wiccans are called "solitary" because they do work alone most of the time. I myself, as a solitary, believe that rituals can be adapted for this kind of work and that it can enable the practitioner to have a private conversation with a deity in a very comfortable and private environment. It goes without saying that both coven and solitary work have their ups and downs. It is up to the individual, or simply the circumstances they are in, which option they will choose.

6. The Book of Shadows

The term "Book of Shadows" is familiar to any Wiccan and almost every Wiccan has one! Though there is a difference between the traditional and eclectic view of this object. For those of you that are not familiar with this term, it refers to a book/notebook in which rituals and basically any information regarding Wicca and witchcraft is kept by a person or several people. You can find out more under the term "Book of Shadows" in the glossary, or you can read this post. In any case, the BoS (short for Book of Shadows) is usually passed down from generation to generation in traditional Wicca. Basically, each new generation copies the old one out and then adds their own information to it. In the case of covens, sometimes a whole coven shares one BoS which is kept by the High Priestess or High Priest. This BoS contains anything that has to do with the coven; group rituals, group magic, outcomes, the history of the coven and so on. Although, each member can  have their own personal BoS as long as they do not break their oath of secrecy by writing material in it which was agreed to be kept secret (this material can usually only be found in the coven's BoS). 

When it comes to solitaries, each person keeps their own Book of Shadows which they can share with whomever they please since they are not bound by any oath of secrecy. Their books usually contain any material which they find relevant to their path. If the solitary is also eclectic, which is often the case, the material will be of a wider span, whereas a solitary witch that follows a specific tradition will usually write specifically about that tradition and topics related to it. This is all very logical, I hope.

7. The Wiccan Rede and the Rule of Three

The Wiccan Rede is a Wiccan text that summarizes the main points of Wiccan rituals and, more importantly, ethics. To discuss it here would take too much time, but just to briefly recap, the shortened version of the Rede states: "An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will". 

The Rule of Three isn't a rule per se, but it is another moral foundation of Wiccan beliefs which can also be found in the Wiccan Rede: "Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good". What it basically says is that everything you do will return to you three times. It's worth noting that most Wiccans understand the number three as metaphorical and simply see this Threefold Law (or Rule of Three) as being the Wiccan interpretation of karma. 

As Deborah Lipp nicely points out, "although most traditional Wiccans also use the Rede and accept it as part of their Craft to a greater or lesser degree, eclectics view it as definitive. While 'it takes a witch to make a witch' might be the definition of a traditionalist, you could say, 'it takes the Rede to make an eclectic Wiccan.' Most eclectics are also fervent proponents of the Rule of Three: Whatever you do will come back to you three-fold. Like the Rede, this rule is familiar to traditional Wiccans, but to eclectics, it is often definitive". It is quite obvious that both define eclectic Wiccans more than they do traditionalists. 

We have basically covered all the similarities and differences of traditional and eclectic/solitary Wicca. I would just like to say that no matter how many discrepancies there may be between these paths, there is no reason for slander. There is always something good to learn from everything. Even though many see eclectic Wicca as something bad for the general reputation of the faith, there are many good sides to eclecticism! Firstly, if it weren't for eclecticism, Wicca would have basically never become known to the general public and thus never accepted in society. Since it is inspired by many faiths, it allows the practitioner an enormous amount of freedom which many long for; some because they simply like being free, others because they are tired of the limitations of organized religion. I personally don't see anything wrong with "borrowing" things from other faiths; if anything, these connections form bonds between them and also between their practitioners. I also believe that it is in the nature of everything to simply mix and intertwine, so why wouldn't it be the same with faiths? Of course, the good and bad sides of both the eclectic and traditional paths could be discussed at length, but I think I should save that for another post.

For now, I hope I managed to bring eclecticism closer to you, dear reader, and prove that it isn't as bad as some make it seem. :) The main thing is that you choose the path that agrees with your nature and that you are happy with yourself and your choices.
Until next time, yours,
Witch's Cat

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