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.”

~ Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

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 did not agree with this attitude and were 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 anymore. The new generation wants to go deeper and they want it from a group just as much as their individual practices. In other words, they don’t want a square dance, they want an ecstatic dance.

The elder mentioned above 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, every spell-working for the coven, and every handfasting and baby blessing performed by that coven. 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.

“Without an experiential dimension any set of magical beliefs, however sophisticated, becomes little different from a scientific procedure – a manufactured means through which to manipulate nature and the objects within it.”

~ Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits

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 our habits and traditions in order to preserve it, many are going to fight it, but it’s something I believe is necessary and part of nature.

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 major focus. They have to opt out of the formal traditions of the older generations because those traditions don’t fit into their lives. Employers are no longer as generous with vacation time and holidays and many people now work on weekends. 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 the 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.

Due to the vast amount of knowledge easily available today, modern witches are now aware of the huge body of fakelore existing in the beliefs, teachings, and traditions within modern Paganism. This has led to the abandonment and scorn of Wicca and its NeoPagan offshoots by the younger generations who know that the burning times, ancient Wiccans, ancient matriarchal goddess-worshipping cultures, and the maiden-mother-crone are modern myths propagated throughout the magical community by misunderstandings and insufficient research. Many belonging to this disillusioned younger generation are angry because these myths are still being taught as historical fact today. Leaders of witchcraft and other traditions have not kept up with contemporary research in the academic fields related to our beliefs and practices resulting in our elders continuing to teach fakelore that has been debunked in the twenty-first century.

This has created a large divide between the old and new generations of witches and prevents much fruitful discourse and collaboration. The younger generation needs to understand that many of their predecessors simply stopped reading and researching new material after a certain point along their spiritual paths. I know of too many elders and leaders who don’t know the sources of large portions of their teaching material, have never read The White Goddess, The Key of Solomon, or the works of Aleister Crowley, have never heard of Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, or Emma Wilby, and have never read Ronald Hutton’s game-changing Triumph of the Moon. The older generation needs to recognize that they must keep up with the research and works of contemporary authors just as a music teacher would keep up with modern music instead of staying stuck in the power ballads of the 1970s and losing their students because of it. When we don’t continue educating ourselves and increasing our standards we become a sad joke to our peers and students as well as outsiders.

“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.”

~ Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

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 witchcraft 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, outdated, and 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). We beat our fists bloody trying to redefine it into something harmless and innocent, but Witchcraft doesn’t care. 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.

© 2013, 2015 Sarah Anne Lawless – Printed in “The Thirteenth Path” occult journal issue #1 published by Aeon Sophia Press. The journal essay is an extended version of the one published on the blog years ago. Do not copy or use any portion of this text without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is more than welcome.

Author Sarah

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Morgan says:

    Woot! Thank you for sharing this! Yes – Witchcraft isn’t dead! It’s just being born into a new and and perhaps truer form!

  • Wytchfawn says:

    Amen sista!

  • Will A says:

    You do the best work!
    Is there any way that I could borrow this awesome story,and print it with a backlink to your website?
    You put in to words the way many folks feel.
    So much talent.

  • Davin Raincloud says:

    Thank you Sarah,

    This has made me feel better about a lot of things I’ve been stressing about lately.

    I think the real progress is not the coven titles, the lineage prestiege etc, it’s in the working of the craft. Doing things and observing the ripples it creates.


  • Danu says:

    While I tend to somewhat agree with your piece that the Craft is evolving (this is an ever truth, each generation adapts to and adds to the previous one’s knowledge); I do not agree witchcraft is dying.

    Please also understand Wicca doesnt equal witchcraft and vice versa. Even so, Wicca is not dying. At least; not traditional Wicca. The new age fluffy bunny Llywellyn kind is dying, and more so, for the better. Neo Wicca takes what is known publically from what is draws it’s name and pushes old rigid believed laws that are not even taught in the original tradition. From what is seen this way, Wicca is alive, well, and doing strong.

    Sure, as you state it may not be as expansive as it was in the 60’s- but even then much of which pushed itself off as Wicca just hadn’t embraced the term Neo Wicca or neo pagan, yet.

    It is true not everyone looks for the structure of trad Wicca because of the expanse of knowledge out there. Which means, less people seek it than before as they know there are other valid paths. Tbh, back in the day many who came across other knowledge predating their aforementioned initiations dropped out for a more new agish approach as it is.

    Which also, leads into something else all together. The old knowledge. Almost an Wiccan elder with valid initiatory lineage is well read in things like Graves and even Roberts. The White Goddess was and remains an important study piece in trad Wicca, to this day; and trad Wicca, is very heavy into learning, research and study. But it is also a mystery tradition, and an experience based path at that, as no two covens are exactly alike.

  • Diana Sinclair says:

    I am from the “sandwich” pagan generation who came after the “elders” of the 60’s and 70’s but before today’s younger pagans. I agree with most of this post and the phenomena it describes is hardly new. I belonged to a small coven in the late 80’s/early 90’s that was as rigid and stuck as those described by the author. Some of us wanted to drum, dance and chant as part of ritual but the leaders wanted to stand around in a circle in the “Osiris” position, drawing energy up from the ground. It was a bore. Likewise, they wouldn’t hear of working with any deities outside the Celtic pantheon, which has never called to me simply because there is little actual historical research and information on them and what we do know is sketchy. Every moon was the same; every sabbat was as boring and monotonous as the one before it. Eventually, several of us left to do our own thing and in my spiritual search I have come to call myself a “Pagan” rather than “witch” or “wiccan”, although I may use those labels sometimes as a locus of where my spirituality generally resides.

    In reading the article, I found it shocking that elders would balk at nudity and ecstatic dance in ritual because they themselves brought those practices back to religion during the early years of the neo-pagan movement. But at the risk of starting a political rant, this is also the “tea party” generation and I have noticed that most of the folks who now seem to hate immigrants; abortion; women’s rights; gay rights; sexual freedom and the liberal changes our culture has endured appear to hail from the Baby Boomer generation: the very group who ushered in these changes to begin with!!! I have often asked myself; “where did all the hippies go??” Apparently, they devolved into their parents! Now it appears that I need to ask the same question of older pagans!

    I sometimes found this article patronizing. For one thing, yes, I read “White Goddess” and “Golden Bough” and other tomes recommended by my teachers. Robert Graves, although a wonderful author and poet, was never taken as “gospel” among the witches and pagans I knew – just a guide to work around. The “matriarchal prehistoric societies” were also treated as “theory”, and we read Maria Gambutas’ works for input on that score. Gambutas was a respected archeologist and professor at UCLA, who proposed the early peaceful matrilineal/egalitarian societies through her archeological finds but she was hardly a witch with an agenda, so I feel some her theories should be seriously considered. My fellow coven members and I knew that the “Maiden/Mother/Crone” was a modern construct, probably based upon the faces of Hecate (newer traditions even add a fourth persona: The Queen, in keeping with today’s culture and the longer lifespans women enjoy now). The calling of the quarters was also lifted from Masonic tradition (as well as the response, “So Mote It Be”). Several other features of some Wiccan traditions even have the Boy Scouts to thank for features of their liturgy. To say nothing of the early Golden Dawn movement.

    I will take issue with the comment that the Burning Times are a wiccan myth. As a former history major (who specialized in the Medieval Period and Renaissance), I can tell you that they DID happen. At the end of the Roman period, those persecuted WERE Pagans who refused to convert to the new Christian state Religion; some traditions give Hypagia of Alexandria the honor of being the first documented Pagan martyr. During the Medieval/Renaissance period, millions of people were tortured, burned and imprisoned for not conforming to orthodox Christian beliefs. Those who suffered included Jews; midwives; divergent Christian sects; Muslims; deformed and infirm persons; widows, single women and early scientists. My fellow coven members and I also knew that probably very few to NONE of the victims were pagans or witches of any type but they were overwhelmingly female. Likewise, we never subscribed to the belief that paganism or witchcraft survived intact through this period to be revealed once again by folks like Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have come from a long line of secret witches. I have always said (and taught students) that Wicca and neo-paganism are modern religions based upon ancient ideas.

    As an older pagan (in my 50’s) I can say that I have NEVER stopped reading or researching and my views have changed accordingly. MY main complaint with younger pagans is that they don’t want to read; research or study the history of their religious movement. IS the Wiccan/neo-pagan movement a religion of experience and emotion? YES! Should pagans experiment with mediation, alternate states of consciousness, dancing, drums and even (when appropriate) ritual sexuality? SURE! Should we design our rituals based on the need and sprit of the moment? ABSOLUTELY! Older pagans also KNOW that the religion is constantly being created and experienced; even Starhawk talked about “creating religion” in “The Spiral Dance” years ago.

    But newer and younger devotees should also listen to what the elders have to say because they can learn a great deal from them. Likewise, I am also a proponent of Wicca/paganism being a tradition of study; we will never be considered a serious movement until we can articulate our basic worldview to the outside. We should be a balanced community of shamans and scholars who belong to a personal religion of both experience and written knowledge.

  • Peter Edwards says:

    Good article 🙂 Great to see the fire within, and of course you are right on many points.

  • Wonderful! I feel like I read this a couple of weeks ago. 😉

    Thank you for yet another spot on post.

  • Angela says:

    Wow, what an excellent article Sarah. You hit on so many issues that I can relate to and have thought about. I happen to be in the middle of the two extremes. I was not practicing in the 60’s but I have been practicing for quite some time now. I do find the older material interesting and useful as far as history, but I also enjoy the newer material. One problem is knowing you have good sources. Often times I find that people, young and old, don’t want to take the time to research. “It’s on the internet, therefore it must be true.” And there are also authors who’s books are questionable at best. If nothing else I feel the elders should be willing to help ensure that what the younger folks are learning is valid.

    Another issue is that there is a lot to be said for “ritual”. Pretty much every religion practices some form or repetitive ritual. That being said it is also important to point out that witchcraft is not a religion.

    Again thank you for this thought provoking article.

  • Barsa says:

    damn, girl. One good article.

  • Aralia says:

    I’m interested in learning more about “fakelore,” specifically finding sources that point to the burning times and ancient matriarchal goddess-worshipping cultures being myths. Both of which I have a hard time believing are myths.

    • Sarah says:

      The witch trials were obviously a very real atrocity, but most people were hanged not burnt and it’s very unlikely that any of them were “witches” as we define the term today. Many were Jews, wanderers, old men and women, and people used as scapegoats for villagers’ problems due to the superstitions of the times. It is mainly the number of 9 million dead passed around the Neopagan community that became known as fakelore. Today scholars are arguing over whether it was 40,000 or hundreds of thousands.

      The Goddess was a big deal in the romantic period and a lot of archaeological finds were faked. Scientists are still trying to differentiate the fakes from the real ones – even some famous statuary like Minoan snake goddesses. Most primitive ancient cultures have been found to practice gender equality and animism and this is reflected in some indigenous tribes today. Here’s a decent article covering Gimbutas and similiar theories: