Or, How the Death of Modern Witchcraft is a Myth
itchcraft 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…
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.