The World is Wide Enough: On Trashing Wiccan Traditions
When I teach beginners, the first thing that I tell them is that the Craft is a big, wide place, and there are lots and lots of different kinds of witches and lots of different kinds of pagans. I tell them about the Rule of 100 — nothing is 100 percent true for 100 percent of witches 100 percent of the time. That said, there is also within the wide world of witches, a rather largish tradition that has been at the center of Craft since the mid-20th Century — Modern Wicca.
While the terms “Wiccan” and “witch” were never interchangeable, for much of the 20th Century, Wiccans did make up a large part of the witch community. Seekers looking to learn about the Craft were taught about Gerald Gardner, and learned the core tenets of Wicca. Even as authors like Scott Cunningham and Silver Ravenwolf emerged who wrote books that became the foundation for solitary and eclectic practitioners, the “default” version of the Craft was considered to be Wicca. This was exacerbated by the fact that before the Internet became a ubiquitous thing that we could carry in our pockets everyplace we go, those who wanted to walk the path and learn the Craft had to do so from an actual human being who they met and got to know and had a relationship with. Which means that if most of the practitioners you knew were Wiccan, you were probably learning Wicca too, whether that was truly the best tradition for you or not.
Jump forward about 30 years to today, and things are a little different in a number of ways. First off, we’ve seen an explosion of eclectic witchcraft, and the resurgence of many non-Wiccan traditions from places other than Northern Europe like Brujeria, Santeria, and Voodun. It is no longer necessarily the case that if you are looking for a community of magical practice, that that community will most likely be Wiccan. The proliferation of information via the Internet has made the Craft available to anyone who wants it, and changed dramatically how new Witches learn about and participate in the community.
We’re seeing a shift in the attitudes of seekers towards the Craft itself. Seekers have access to so much information that they can engage with before they ever encounter another witch, they legitimately question whether they really need to find a teacher. And with the wide range of magical traditions available to them, they see less need to commit to one, especially one that requires an oath.
It is also perhaps inevitable that Wicca, as it ages as a tradition, would start to look a little dusty. Many of the foundations of Wicca were developed in Great Britain in the 1950s by an aging British civil servant and a middle class poet and housewife (Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, respectively). Gerald Gardner was known to exaggerate some of his credentials and was something of an “unreliable narrator.” And Wicca as a tradition has a lot of elements that do not stand up well in the 21st century. It’s division of energy into male and female, and placing at the center of the tradition the “union” of the God and Goddess is cisgendered and heteronormative, leaving anyone who isn’t cis-het wondering if they belong. Gardnerian Wiccan traditions, if they are keeping to the original format, practice “sky clad” or naked (Gerald Gardner was a nudist), which can feel intimidating in a culture where fat-shaming is prevalent, and where women feel objectified and simultaneously pressured to put their bodies on display and then punished and judged when they do. Add to that certain seminal authors (Silver Ravenwolf being the most notable example) from the late 20th Century taking a less than rigorous approach to Wicca as a tradition, and there is much for an aspiring practitioner to cast serious side-eye at.
After all, why would any young Gen Z’er want anything to do with an antiquated, cis-het normative practice that was developed by an old British guy selling a dubious story about being initiated into a “familial coven,” a practice which relies on secrecy and hierarchy to essentially keep people away from knowledge and lionize privilege based in rank? Geez, as I’m writing this, even I can’t help but feel like they’ve got a point. And that’s probably why, if you’re hanging out on Instagram and TikTok, you’ve noticed that Wicca is getting dragged. Telling someone that you’re a Wiccan is pretty much the same as telling them you listen to Pat Boone and make vegetable and meat jello molds. You’re hopelessly out of touch with what’s cool and enlightened, and probably super old to boot. What could be worse?
But here’s the thing — reading about something on the Internet isn’t going to tell you jack shit about what it’s really like in practice. If the only thing you know about modern Wiccan practice is what you’re hearing from critics on social media platforms, I might suggest to you that you know way less about it than you think you do. You can learn a lot from YouTube videos about highly pragmatic things like how to fix a kitchen cabinet, or how to solve a math equation. But watching someone talk about a spiritual or magical experience tells you very little about how it feels and works in real life. A person can make a TikTok video that walks you through their house, and you’ll get a decent idea about what kind of furniture they have, etc. But until you show up at their door and get a tour in real life, you really don’t have any idea what their home really feels like or what it’s like to live there.
The only way to really know what Modern Wicca is and how it is practiced today is to actually talk to some real Wiccans and maybe, if you are lucky, share a ritual with them. Because the Wicca that happens today looks very different from that which you read about in books, and from what Gerald Gardner envisioned. Many, many Wiccan covens are opening their practices to be more inclusive of non cis-het viewpoints. Many Wiccans still practice skyclad, but a great many do not do that anymore. Sure, if you look at how Gardner originally envisioned it, Wiccan covens would have to have a male and female leader, but there are plenty of covens out there led by someone who does not have a counterpart of the “opposite gender” (an idea that is itself a loaded concept).
Traditions evolve. They change with the times and as their adherents change. While much of Wiccan ritual will have some basic components in common — the casting of a circle and the calling of quarters, for instance — that doesn’t mean that Wiccan ritual is boring or stuck. In truth, the basic frame that Wiccan practice provides is actually quite malleable, and allows within it a great deal of creativity. This isn’t like Greek Orthodox Christianity, where the basic communion liturgy is still done word-for-word the same as it’s been done since the 6th Century. Compared to some of the more ossified liturgical traditions of the world, Wicca is actually quite flexible.
And there is also value in having some things remain the same. A tradition that has a shared ceremonial practice and shared understanding of structure helps to create a sense of community among practitioners. A system that allows for milestones that represent an attainment of rank can, if misused, send people on power trips. But when folks stay more grounded, it gives participants a sense of progress, achievement and proficiency. There is a comfort in knowing that no matter where I go or who I end up circling with, I can be relatively certain that if someone is a First Degree Initiate in a Gardnerian-based tradition, they have shared a similar experience in the form of the First Degree Initiation ritual.
Having a ritual framework that has stood the test of time over the last 70-plus years can be comforting when confronted with the vast ocean of possibility that is pagan practice. Everyone I know who teaches 101 classes to the public will tell you that the statement they hear most frequently from new witches is “I wanted to cast this spell, but I wasn’t certain I knew how to do it right, so I didn’t.” Wicca, for all of its flaws both real and imagined, does offer a reliable framework for witches to practice and learn and live the craft with confidence.
Yes, those books by Silver Ravenwolf do feel awfully superficial in their approach to the Craft, and might be a lot less relevant to today’s seekers. But there are lots of newer books available that you can learn from. There is no canonized text or holy book that you HAVE to study. Yes, the basic structure of the Lord and Lady and the Great Rite is cis-het normative, but Wicca has no Pope that’s going to punish you if you decide to experiment with those norms. Sure, there are other traditions, newer traditions that look shiny and fun. And you can and should find a practice that works best for you, whether it’s an organized tradition or not. It might not be Wicca. Hell, you might even try Wicca for a time and then find that it no longer works for you, and that you want to move on. And that’s cool too, so long as you undo whatever bonds and oaths you might have made honorably.
You can love Wicca or you can hate it. The world is wide enough for both opinions to exist and for everything in between. And whichever opinion you choose, you are absolutely right. And you are also probably wrong. Yes, it is possible to be both simultaneously. That’s the Rule of 100 at work. And that’s where the Wiccan Tradition is indeed 100 percent correct — Wicca is there for whoever wants it. And completely unconcerned with those who do not. And that is just as it should be.