Breaking Tradition

Or, How the Death of Modern Witchcraft is a Myth

Witchcraft is already dead as a hag, as barren as the moon, as contaminated as the tar sands. Yet Witchcraft is born again in this sacred despoiled landscape, and will be despised as an abomination by those who cannot navigate by the candlelight of guttering stars. Those who seek to escape the fates and furies will learn that they are inexorable.”

Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey

Modern witchcraft is changing its stripes. I need only to talk to elders and attend long-standing events to see this clearly. The young people are upsetting and delighting the older generations with their newly evolved beliefs and practices. One old-timer is horrified by an ecstatic ritual at a festival full of nudity, body paint, drumming, trance, possession, and ecstatic dance. They complain loudly to everyone and try to get nudity banned at an event that’s been clothing optional for twenty years because they don’t know how else to deal with their extremely uncomfortable reaction to the ritual itself. Another elder’s eyes shine with joy to see young people hosting a ritual the likes of which they haven’t participated in since they were taking amanita caps in the woods with their friends from college in the 1960s. They clap loudly in glee and ask for more.

An elder, trained in a well-known and well-lineaged witchcraft tradition, comes to my city to train students and form a serious practicing coven. They have good connections and intentions, but can’t get a single student. They lament to me over lunch how much things have changed in the past forty years and how surprised they were that no one wanted a serious commitment. They give up and go home and my local community doesn’t realize what it lost. As a member of the younger generation they were fishing from, they ask me why, what has changed?

The biggest issue of the previously mentioned elder was that they were trying to form a coven based solely on controlled external rituals, not wanting anything to do with internal process or personal gnosis. They did not approve of the path of the mystic and all the internal processing the younger folk were up to in ritual and were very vocal about it. I see this attitude more often than not in elders from the 60s and 70s. The younger generation was not interested. They wanted a spiritual path that would challenge them on a psychological as well as spiritual level, heal them, and help them face their fears and demons. They didn’t want to sing the same songs and perform the same actions at every ritual and have that be the extent of their group activity. It’s fun, but it’s not enough any more. The new generation wants to go deeper and they want it from a group just as much as their individual practice. In other words, they don’t want a square dance, they want an ecstatic dance.

The big name initiatory traditions are no longer the be all end all of witchcraft. Younger generations of witches are putting less and less importance on lineage and formal initiation choosing personal gnosis, mysticism, direct ecstatic experience, and spirit initiation over the customs of previous generations.  Many of them would rather follow a personalized spiritual practice than follow the dogma of a set tradition. Many of them do not agree with the hierarchical structure of witchcraft covens and the many interpersonal problems it can create. Many consider strict traditions to be as divisory to witchcraft and Paganism as the different sects of the Church are to Christianity (i.e. witch wars). Others don’t like the polytheistic restriction or the inexplicable focus of only the ancient Celtic and Greek cultures within traditions. They want more options, more flexibility, and a more involved, hands-on style to their craft.

I have heard all of these from many mouths, but when it really comes down to it, most are devoted to their families, schooling, and careers and are not in a position to give their time to training in a formal coven. Their spirituality becomes an important part of their life, but not its sole or even the major focus. They have to opt out of the formal traditions of the older generations because those traditions don’t fit into their lives. I have known so many who left formal training in witchcraft traditions because they couldn’t devote the time needed and had given up trying to juggle the training with their family and job. The world has changed since they heyday of our elders and, because of our current seemingly endless access to information thanks to the internet and globally connected libraries, individuals no longer need to rely on private covens for training, lore, and resources. The personalized path and/or an informal group become some of the most viable options.

“We are used to being unwelcome, hunted, blamed, raped, tortured, dispossessed, disappeared. Now we are an irrelevance, a harmless eccentricity, a fairy ball sporting stick on ears and dressing up box deviance, a social joke. Yet as witchcraft is filled with the spirit of the age we will become dangerous again, because witchcraft will have rooted meaning.”

Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey

Witchcraft is no longer synonymous with Wicca like it once was, modern witches are no longer all Wiccans, and Wicca’s structure and beliefs have instead become equated with NeoPaganism, lay-Paganism, and New Agers even though this is not true for those who have preserved Wicca as an initiatory, oathbound withcraft tradition. It is sad to witness the decline and dilution of Wicca and all it accomplished, to see it reduced to a target of bashing and ridicule, but it is natural, it is evolution. The young mock their elders, ignorant to the battles they fought so the youth could enjoy freedom. The younger generations have forgotten the witchcraft laws that had to be repealed, the previous lack of religious rights and freedoms, the stones thrown through windows, the hateful words spewed like venom, and how hard it once was to find information on anything to do with witchcraft. They don’t know that Wicca was once seen to be as dark, dangerous, primal, mysterious, and appealing as the newer forms of witchcraft being practiced today. They weren’t alive at the time – how could they remember? So few read our history and pick elders’ brains as I love to do. It’s not bad and it’s not good, it simply is.

It is a pattern I see: something new and wonderful is born into witchcraft — maybe it’s a tradition, a belief, a practice — it is taken up with a frenzy to its furthest extent. Over time it becomes overdone, stale, static, diluted, forgotten. It dies or is killed. The newer generation abandons it and starts again with a new idea, a new frenzy. We are currently at the crossroad with both the old and new witchcraft generations co-existing. We are experiencing the death of what was and the birth of what will be simultaneously. The Witch is the sacred Yew Tree, never dying, always shedding her skin like the serpent so she may ever live on in one form or another.   There is no unbroken lineage, no unbroken witchcraft tradition in history. There is only Witchcraft itself, a wild thing that can never be caught and contained but insists on its wildness and on constant transformation, constant death and rebirth (as with all things in nature). Witchcraft is a survivor. Witchcraft mocks our definitions, divisions, tidy boxes, and white-washing, leaving a trail of feathers and bones through forest and city alike.

We are breaking tradition. All of us, right now. After we are done with our axes and sledgehammers, Witchcraft will still be there, waiting patiently for us to finish our destruction. It is the tree that is ever cut down but ever springs forth again from the earth because its roots grow so deep. Now to see what form it grows into this time…

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This piece stems from long conversations I often have with a good friend and elder about the death of modern witchcraft. He bemoans the changes, losses, and white-washing while I try to cheer him up by telling him all the new and exciting things the young folk are up to and taking him to their rituals to see for himself.  He is always surprised and delighted by how well-educated and experienced the younger generation is and how much they challenge and push the boundaries of the witches who came before.

From our long talks and attending and performing many rituals together, I’ve changed his attitude about the uselessness of young people and he’s changed mine about the stuffiness of the older generation of witches (oh, the crazy stories of witches in the 60s!). In the past few years of young and old mixing in my local community, I’ve seen us share our collective knowledge and experience and create rituals and events beyond what each generation would’ve accomplished separately. It’s funny what happens when we stop assuming and talk to each other and work together — magic happens! I hope it’s happening in your community too.

Comments

27 Responses to “Breaking Tradition”

  1. Aidan says:

    It is great to see this article. Out in the boonies as I am, I only see what is published, and mostly that online. But what I see happening in all the fields of magic and witchcraft is as you say- evolution. The depth of material produced by my generation and those previous laid the groundwork, tilled and planted the fields, and their children’s children grew up with all this like my son growing up with cell phones and computers. The work may or may not be deeper, but the long term progression is amazing. Who would have thought we’d have such a large body of Goetic material? That we’d have a group like the Covenant of Hecate? Or that Hoodoo and Conjure would be so wide spread. We live interesting times, and the children of all our children will be that much deeper, having grown up as second and third and fourth generation practitioners! Dead? In some fashion perhaps. but mostly: Changing shapes and forms, shedding skins and becoming, becoming, becoming….

  2. Ivy says:

    Fantastic. Thank you.

  3. trishkill says:

    Beautiful ♡ unfortunately there is little to nothing of this sort in my community :(

  4. shivasmurf says:

    Very Well stated !

  5. NatE says:

    This evolution is happening the world over, even in my culture. Beliefs and practices are being dissected, examined, and reconfigured in new and interesting ways. I too am intrigued by the changes and adaptions that are happening. It’s exciting. :)

  6. Chrissy says:

    Bravo!
    I was initiated by Alex Saunders in his London flat in 1972. The thing that attracted me to Witchcraft was it’s outrageous take on spirituality. To be able to actually cast a circle of power and deal with the gods on a personal level.

    Witchcraft will always attract those in search of the outrageous. What was outrageous in 1972 is passe in 2013. Thank the gods my religion is able to transmogrify!

  7. mist says:

    True witchcraft will always be sidelined by the majority. It is as completely inevitable as it is definitive.

    When the “craft” goes mainstream, then the mainstream will come to the craft and redefine it in its own imagine. Whether it’s “hoof & horn”, sweatlodges, James Dean jacket & cigarettes, or futuristic storylines. The mainstream is a consumer, which consumers.

    Your elder… which is probably like several of the elders I know… SHOULD already know this.
    That is why a few of us are rejecting their path – their ritual and rebellion takes them part of the way but no further. We stand on the shoulders of the giants, or risk being trampled underfoot. And all the time, the worm consumes. WHY does their training say free your mind, dance naken in your rites, and yet they do the wiccan dirge trudging around a circle robed. why call Pan or Thor if you don’t actually want said beings to respond? Why free your mind if all you’re going to do is lock it in another box? If I wanted to bow my head and be humble and subservient I could join the Christian or other dogmatic religions to achieve this. If I wanted to study books, spend days locked up memorising doctrines and correspondences, and feel moral superior, I would join a university program – at least I would have a public piece of paper to proclaim my self-righteousness. These things weren’t an option in the world 60 – 100 yrs ago, but some people took the magic in their hands and mind and shaped the world. In doing so, the price was letting the mainstream in. The price of success was success. Which again _should_ have been taught if the elders training was up to it. If it’s not up to it, why would I wish to learn it? If their wu is that good, then the world has changed, so then we need to adapt to the new world.

    We are the people of tomorrow.

  8. You know, the funny thing is, I never particularly thought of Witchcraft has being too hierarchic, I always related that to Wicca which is why I found myself on the path of Witchcraft. Spirituality has always been an ever evolving being, otherwise it cannot grow. I know that the more patriarchal religions are finding this, I remember reading that a church in England was trying to find a way to include Paganism in its preachings in order to attract new church members – I think this is an example of how religion stagnates and people become dissatisfied and the religions or spiritual movements have to grow and adapt in order to keep people interested.

    The Elders, as with any sort of elder, see things as they were taught as being the right way and therefore the way it must be done – there is nothing wrong with that, sometimes the foundation has to be built before the bricks can begin to create something astonishing – however those foundations have to change with the times. Personally, the traditional correspondences, while helpful, no longer play a huge part in my practice, I go with my intuition and work from there. There is great value in learning from the Elders of the Craft, but in saying that, the Elders also have much to learn from those who practice now. I think a mutual meeting of minds and creating something new out of the old knowledge and the new experiences would end up being something incredible.

  9. eryn says:

    really really great and well written, thank you

  10. Asenath says:

    This is a brilliant essay. Thank you for putting into words many of the things I’ve been thinking, and for letting all of us “kids” out here know we’re not alone. You’re an inspiration.

  11. Halia says:

    I believe is normal breaking traditions, everything evolves and (usually) grows…but, in the same time cannot go over steps without deeply knowing (and practicing) a path. Sure witchraft as we live it isn’t the same of our Elders: too, is the same for kitchen’s recipes, everyone adds an ingredient, change a passage…but this changing is what makes what we do ALIVE.
    Any way, is important focusing on and being conscious about.

  12. Paul says:

    You are rare amongst the younger generation of witches that I have met. You are more inquisitive, intelligent, and tenacious in acquiring and processing both knowledge and experience. This is an excellent article and I trust you know more witches like yourself who I have either not met or heard articulate in this clear way the changes they are involved in.
    I’m sure that Gardner’s original rites were both naked and ecstatic as well as mind altering for the newbie witches of the 1930’s. I’m also sure that as it became a city practice it became more clothed, stilted, and codified.
    This is refreshing news that evolution is happening. It undoubtedly returns some of the original purpose of the practice.
    When I was learning we had to investigate all the pantheons and the new writing was on how to safely enter the possession state., but honestly many were too timid to do a ritual long enough or deep enough to let this occur.
    Kudos to you for fiercely and fearlessly stepping into the little known and keeping us abreast of your adventures.
    Paul

  13. Redwing says:

    While this is an interesting article, it misses a very important point that I bring up, frequently, with my students. The purpose of ritual (doing the same things, the same way, over and over and over again), is to build a strong foundation so that one can commence with the important work. Why put your energy into inventing the wheel every single time? Why not use the components of the ritual to create the mindset in which magic happens? After some training, each and every one of the people who have joined my coven have come to agree, and when in more eclectic groups, see the chaos.

    I believe the trend we’re seeing now, ecstactic shaministic mysticism, will eventually calm down, and seekers will either form their own rituals (because ritual, done for the right reasons) work, or they will come looking for more fluid traditions than those your Elder friend describes.

    • MadGastronomer says:

      Many ecstatic practitioners achieve their ecstasy within a ritual framework. Establishing a space, initiating the trance in a certain way, and closing in a certain way. Ecstatic practice does not necessarily mean practice without any structure at all. Ritual itself can be an ecstatic experience, done correctly. And ecstatic trance can be a ritual in and of itself. Don’t dismiss these practices without examining them more closely.

      • Redwing says:

        I was not dismissing ecstatic practice. I was talking about the need for ritual structure which makes it easier to achieve that mindset.

        • MadGastronomer says:

          And I was explaining that much of ecstatic practice does not actually lack ritual structure. That’s what I was talking about you dismissing: the ritual structure that already exists, which you are ignoring.

  14. Lee Shawnus says:

    Thanks for remembering those of us who back in the early 80s did drive 100 miles to Sabat and hand copied our BOSs to continue our tradition. And yes we even blew a doobie before ritual, so we were traditional yet wild and crazy too. I enjoy the old standardized rituals, kinda like walking a well familiar path through the woods, and yet i was the one who rebelled and tried to introduce some new aeonic Thelemic teachings into the system too, so it took me awhile to get my third degree from my very conservative teacher and priestess. And i still think that true Witchcraft is what a witch does by themselves out in the woods more than in temple, though both can be in balance. I will most likely reblog this excellent writing, so thanks for hashing it all out.

  15. This is one of the most important articles I have read in a very long time.

  16. Thank you for this, it makes me feel both old and young! I am old enough to be an elder, but was always the solitary mystic hermit on the sidelines….refusing to be pressed like a flower in the pages of someone else’s “book”! It fills me with energy and hope to think that the younger generation will find wild new ways of filling the need for ritual (not just doing the same thing always….just seeking the same result always, for me) and a vivid exploratory need as well.

  17. Todd Fashion says:

    Thank you for this very important article. For a number of years now I have been trying to warn elders with whom I am in contact of the changes that are occurring and the perfectly appropriate attitudes of the younger generation of practitioners of “The Way” as we refer to it in the Elder path. Following is a response I made to a discussion of your article on a FB page I am a part of. I thought it might be worthwhile to include it here since I did noticed some slight inaccuracies attributed specifically to “traditional practices” and “ritual”. May the Mighty Mighty Ones guide each in accordance with their due.

    So and so (name removed to protect their identity) is correct; the edgier, ecstatic practices have always been within the Shadows of the Way. Most Elders simply haven’t been practicing or teaching the deeper mysteries since the late seventies and early eighties according to long established contacts I once held.

    I would caution here only, that a ritual is different from a ceremony. Ceremonies change and so be it; it allows for creativity, experimentation and inspiration springing from the personal individual studies and interests of the practitioners. Rituals are repetitive by definition and those who’ve been claiming for years that they change in accordance with their individual desires or dates have moved away from the “ritual practice” proper.

    Lastly, ritual is not simply about building a strong foundation; it is about creating a space wherein one can alter their consciousness and move from the sacred space ‘between’ to the desired place where one experiences the other worlds and paths, sometimes molding and/or working the energies of magaick. Ritual is indispensable as a tool for accessing the inner planes. This is not to say that such access cannot be made through other ‘shamanic” (a much misused word in our day and age) practices such as ecstatic drumming and dancing, vision questing, sweat lodges, even Oki Pa ceremonies etc….. ad nauseum. Only one’s own stomach dictates how one chooses to explore the inner and outer worlds. Those elders who insist that certain practices are not a part of the path are forgetting that the Witch is an archetypal Magpie, and rebel extraordinaire, stealing their ways from wherever they find something workable, desirable or worthwhile. Shock and socially unacceptable behavior in our practice has a much longer and deeper history than any of the elders offended by such things.

    Those of us elders who remain should attempt to embrace these realities if we are to manage to keep up with the younger generation who will get their information wherever they want and many of whom are not oath bound and therefore, see no conflict in acquiring their knowledge however they will. Times change and Change is the only constant in the universe!

    Merry meet.

  18. Sarah says:

    Thank you everyone for your supportive responses and insights! It only makes me want to write more! Thank you also to those who shared and linked to my article and sparked discussions in other groups.

    As with any piece I write, there is always a nitpick largely unrelated to the purpose and intent of the article – this time most of the nitpicking occurred on platforms other than the blog comments. I had a good chuckle over it as it was about the definition of ritual.

    Ritual is not just something you do over and over again (it’s a rare dictionary that will tell you that). Ritual is synonymous with ceremony and both are usually connected to events, rites of passage, and specific intents. A ritual is not a ritual because you do the same thing again and again – a ritual is a ritual because you use the same or similar ceremony for the same purpose again and again: ie. circle casting, lunar rites, sabbat rites, death rites, birth rites, wedding rites, prosperity rites, protection rites, consecration rites…

    Now, to relate this back to the article, the elder I mentioned in the second paragraph wanted to use the same ritual format for every type of ceremony performed in the group. Imagine the same ritual at every esbat and sabbat rite and every handfasting and baby blessing performed by that group. I’ve seen many Wiccan covens get stuck in this habit. A long, drawn out circle-casting method becomes the go-to for every single rite and it becomes similar to a Catholic service performed the same every Sunday with everyone droning the same words. It loses its magic and meaning over time becoming a formula, a procedure devoid of spiritual connection and experience.

    It is good to learn a circle-casting ritual and learn it well, it will keep you out of a lot of sticky magical situations, but if it’s all a group does, people are going to start to get bored and frustrated and believe that’s all the group has to offer in the way of magical training. I’ve known a good handful of folks who have left covens and Wicca because of this. I’ve also known people who were kicked out of covens because they wanted to change up the static circle-casting ritual and the leaders believed they were no longer in keeping with the tradition and therefore were no longer members.

    These are things we are going to have to deal with and consider if covens and traditions want to keep their members, gain new ones, and keep evolving and growing to continue on instead of fossilizing and dying off. It’s not going to be easy to break tradition in order to preserve it, many are going to fight it, but it’s something I believe is necessary and part of nature.

    • Claudia says:

      I love your description of a ritual. I could never understand why people compare a ritual to “brushing your teeth” every morning! Great post!

    • Jake Stratton-Kent says:

      Dear Sarah,

      From the start I got that this was an important article, but had to dig for context due to differences in location, generation etc. Maybe being a ponderous thinker didn’t help either (Taurean y’know). With persistence & some helpful nudges things are a lot clearer now.

      It’s clear that there is a new wind blowing in modern magic and witchcraft; and so there should be. Not least because magic and tradition do not stand still, but more than that. The giants of the Occult Revival, on whose shoulders we stand, were not infallible, they worked within various limitations. While respecting their achievements, several important changes have occurred in the last twenty or so years which require adapting to at very least:

      # We now have access to the ‘Practical Hermetica’ or Greek Magical Papyri &c denied to the original Golden Dawn and generations of their successors; bear in mind that one of their most important and influential rituals nevertheless derived from the small portion then available.

      # For most of the period from 1875 to recent times the impression modern occultism had of Goetia and the grimoires was utterly misleading (clue, Goetia is not *only* the title of a grimoire Crowley pirated from Mathers).

      # Appreciation and respect for New World traditions – and their potential in revivifying our own – was not exactly commonplace among Western occultists a few generations back.

      # The deconstruction of the Murray/Graves pseudo-history of paganism and witchcraft is also comparatively recent.

      Besides these events, least appreciated but arguably most important, there are massive cultural exchanges in progress today, on a scale unmatched since Roman times. Their significance is beyond estimation, considering the last such event decisively shaped ‘Western’ magic for 2000 years. Our ‘grass roots’ movements and experiments are part of an enormous melting pot process at work in the world; in which intelligent participation is the only viable response. A very visible sign of how this is shaping our traditions, is how far the barrier of language (for the Anglophone occult movement) is visibly reduced; with exploration of Yoruba, Spanish and Portuguese speaking traditions among others having increasing impact.

      So naturally modern witchcraft and magic cannot be sitting on the laurels of yesteryear. Our ‘new’ traditions cannot sit still, and Teaching Orders also have to *learn*, if they are to be in any sense the ‘guardians of the Western Tradition of Magic’. It’s not going to be comfortable, especially since some aspects of necessary ‘deconstruction’ may well call for a fresh start rather than tinkering. Engaging the energy and intelligence of a younger generation will be crucial. Old dividing lines between approaches & traditions, including ‘ceremonial’ vs ‘witch’, will become increasingly meaningless (goetia can mean witchcraft as well as grimoire magic). In short, I’m neither surprised nor complacent, but am extremely pleased to hear there are visible signs of change afoot in some of the more vibrant occult communities. That is exciting and welcome news.

      ALWays

      JSK

  19. Weathered Wiseman says:

    The one thing that I love most about Witchcraft is the fact that it is constantly changing and evolving. I also love the fact that it takes us with it on this wonderful journey. After all doesn’t water that never flows become stagnant and dead? Movement and change bring newness and a vibrancy to magick.

  20. Artemis says:

    I really appreciate this article and the awareness you speak of regarding the importance of younger and older paganscoming together and how this can add to ritual and magic! Its really important to find a space to include younger pagans and have a flexibilty to allow the younger generation to be a significant part of creating a culture that resonates with them.

    I grew up in a pagan household and while I was in my 20s I found that when I was out and about in the larger pagan community (public rituals, festivals, etc) there were many older people who had come to paganism at a later time in their lives. Even though I was younger than them I had been doing ritual and practicing Witchcraft much longer, yet other than by my own friends and family, my opinions were rarely sought out and my insights were often dismissed by others who mistakenly assumed I, too, was new to the path. This was a common experience many other second (or third, etc) generation pagans have shared with me and its a real turn-off.

    As I get older I think experiences like these allow me to have an increased awareness and to consciously create spaces inclusive to younger folks and to seek out ideas and insights that they may offer – many of which come from the wisdom of taking part in rituals since they were small children and this adds greatly to the experiences everyone has.

    Thanks for posting this article and I enjoy your other work as well.

  21. Anon says:

    Nice article. You made me think that the “traditional” in traditional witchcraft is becoming obsolete in lieu of “something else” which is emerging which is evolutionary/revolutionary. If you could call that “something else” by a name, what would you coin it?