“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Gustav Mahler
I am a Traditional Witch
I am a member of a Witchcraft Tradition
I am inspired by folklore and local traditions.
Three different uses of ‘tradition’…a word of such ambiguity and one which seems to be becoming more misunderstood despite its liberal use in the modern occult community. When viewed like this the context may seem clear, but the words are seldom used together in such an obvious way. So what does tradition mean? More specifically, what does it mean to me?
When searching for a suitable quote to introduce this post, the majority I came across suggested that ‘tradition’ was something negative. Tradition seems to have associations with the old, dusty, stagnant and outdated, something constricting, a tightly bound corset or prison. Of course, blind, soulless adherence to any set of practises can leave one feeling empty and inevitably leads to inertia and eventual decay. Nowadays it seems to be ‘on trend’ to go out of one’s way to actively defy and rebel against the known, long-established order of things in favour of an eclectic, anything goes, constant mind changing approach to spirituality. Perhaps this is due to simple misuse or misunderstanding of what tradition represents, or perhaps desperation to feel unique in a society where we are becoming more identical. On the other hand I see the word ‘traditional’ often used as a means to legitimise, to give something credence amongst one’s peers. But to me ‘tradition’ means something, it’s a heavy word which conjures a sense of legacy, heritage and responsibility, it’s more than a simple adjective and certainly not simply a means to enslave us.
Folk’s across the pond use the term ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ very differently to us here in the UK. I believe in the US the term ‘British Traditional Witchcraft’ is applied to the Wiccan Traditions founded by either Gardner or Sanders. However, in the British Isles the term ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ is used to describe an older form of Craft and distinguish from the practises of Wicca and other similar neo-pagan spiritualities. Ok, so the waters begin to muddy here because no one, and let me say that again, NO ONE really knows with 100% certainty what Witches did generations ago (I’m pretty sure the word Witch wouldn’t have even been used by actual followers of The Faith back then). Most of what we have comes from transcripts of Witch trials (never that reliable anyway) and the amazing collections housed in places such as The Witchcraft Museum. In addition, years of interaction between Witches, Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, Shamans, Eastern Guru’s et al, especially during the 60’s and 70’s, has undoubtedly influenced people from each of the respective paths and practises. Those who insist their practise is pure and is in no way nor has ever been Reconstructionist are frankly, deluded, regardless of the label they put on it. Equally, whilst it may seem that Traditional folk abhor anything which is considered ‘eclectic’, ultimately all faiths by their very nature, are eclectic. All spiritualities evolve with the needs of the people, but a natural evolution over generations is not the same as mix and match from week to week!
While we’re on the subject of distinction, let’s clear the air a bit here. Words and language exist for a reason, language provides the means to delineate and organise things which are different from each other so we can communicate effectively. We call a cat a cat and a dog a dog because they are different creatures. A car and a bicycle are different, a car is not a bicycle and a bicycle is not a car, whilst both are perfectly adequate methods of transporting us from A to B they are not the same vehicle hence we assign different nouns to these objects. No matter how much we might want the bicycle to be a car it never will be, and calling the bicycle a car doesn’t make the bicycle a car! It’s admirable to think we can live in a society where ‘labels’ don’t exist but all the while there are humans, and all the while we need to communicate via the spoken word there will always be labels, there will always be nouns to give something a name and adjectives to describe its characteristics. Traditional (adjective) Witchcraft (noun). Hopefully we’ve squared that little circle and we can move on…
From the great stream of Traditional Craft many tributaries flow which represent the various Traditions. A Traditional Witchcraft Tradition is where things get specific. Traditions have their own unique structure and focus which is not to be confused with rigidity, or imposed “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”. Tradition is structure, not scripture! Structure is the glue or the foundation, it’s what makes the Tradition what it is, it’s the stories they tell, the specific tools and techniques used, the unique guiding spirits etc. Following on from the previous analogy, it’s the features which distinguish between an Aston Martin, a Mini Cooper or a Ford Escort.
Misunderstanding often seems to arise because many people don’t understand what being a member of a specific Tradition actually means. To be a part of a Tradition is to be part of a family, we are organised like a family, we respect each other like a family. Yes there are rules, but these are the unspoken ones we would all recognise… loyalty, respect, protection, aid and soon. Think about how you might address your grandparents versus, say your siblings or second cousin twice removed. We know these things because we have been slowly brought up and raised in the ways of the family (if I spoke to my Grandmother the way I hear some speak to their elders these days then wo betide me!) It has nothing to do with power, ego or even regulation, it’s simply a matter of respect.
Like all families, whilst not connected by DNA (though some are of course), Craft Traditions are nonetheless connected by ancestry and thus share a common heritage unique to them. A structure is necessary to facilitate and maintain connection to that ancestral current so that we may participate in the combined wisdom of the Tradition and enrich it at the same time. Yes, it is a mutual relationship! Traditions provide a tried and tested way of doing things, after all repetition breeds power, but they do not offer the only way of doing things (and not necessarily the best either…there I said it!). There is always opportunity to explore and deviate here and there providing the ‘keys’ remain.
It would be remiss of me to discuss individual Traditions of Old Craft (albeit generally) and not discuss initiation and admission. It’s worth pointing out that some people don’t consider a Craft Tradition to be ‘living’ until the Tradition founder’s first inductee has inducted someone else (if you follow?!) and yes, that does mean that every single modern Tradition was, at some point ‘made up’ by someone…of course they were. I often wonder what people expected before they realised for the first time that the likes of Robert Cochrane or Andrew Chumbley ‘invented’ some of their Tradition’s practises…the fact the system works for some and is passed on is all that matters, where the material comes from, be it divinely inspired or plucked out of thin air (assuming there is a difference) should be considered irrelevant. I could sit here now and ‘invent’ an entire magical system, but if it doesn’t work then people won’t use it, and if people don’t work with it then it doesn’t survive, thus I could never call it a Tradition. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating! A Witchcraft Tradition is as dependant on the people as we are on the Tradition, in fact substitute the word ‘Ancestors’ here and you will begin to understand why the Ancestors are such an integral part of Traditional Craft practises…we simply can’t have one without the other.
Definitions of what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ Tradition vary. I’ve seen too many arguments over the years and people fighting over this rather nebulous concept and frankly I couldn’t give a stuff…just get on with it and don’t waste time worrying about what so and so are doing! It generally boils down to ‘initiation’. In some Craft Families/Clans/Traditions, initiation is not the same thing as admission. First there usually comes a period of instruction which provides the apprentice with the basic tools to enable him or herself to become acquainted with the ancestral stream or current which connects all members and vivifies the Tradition. That doesn’t mean of course one can’t study anything else (although ‘collecting’ memberships is generally frowned upon to put it mildly). All being well the apprentice should start receiving insights or visions along certain shared themes which indicate a link has been established. In other words, the student and the Tradition are compatible…simplistically speaking. Initiation however, may happen months or years before or even months or years after the period of instruction has come to its agreed end. Initiation is a process or series of events usually instigated by The Old Ones themselves whereas an individual’s induction or admission into The Family happens once and usually in a ritual setting, but neither are guaranteed and neither should be expected. It’s difficult to accept in today’s society, where everyone expects everything for nothing, that the apprentice and Tradition may part ways at any time, putting in a year or even two years’ worth of hard graft doesn’t automatically ensure initiation or give one the right to admission. There are no restrictions, no regulations and no ties to the Tradition beyond one’s own sense of loyalty, which is entirely different to the pacts we may make individually between ourselves and The Old Ones of course. The only thing that is expected of the apprentice throughout the process is hard work, honesty, loyalty, respect and a degree of discretion.
On that note, what’s all the secrecy about and why do so many Witchcraft Traditions operate sub rosa? Ever heard the saying “Do not cast pearl before swine”? We spend years, often our entire lives devoted to our practise, to studying and understanding the unseen ways. A Craft Family’s practises are often the result of decades of work and the collective gnosis of many devoted members, the Tradition itself is a precious living legacy, it’s priceless and definitely not something that will be given away to just anyone. I have heard of many well established Traditions falling to pieces because of one noxious member, so for that reason, the period of study before formal admission into a Tradition is seen as a form of ‘probation’ to make sure the living members of the Tradition (as well as the Ancestors) are completely at ease and cohesion is protected. Tradition isn’t about the practise, but that which the practise is there to preserve!
This period of study provides the foundation for future teachings, you can’t get to C without going via A, then B. To give something away to someone who hasn’t had this initial period of instruction would likely result in nothing and despondency at best, or worse something completely undesirable. Contrary to popular belief, secrecy has nothing to do with making ourselves appear mysterious, there are no great secrets in The Craft and certainly no one Tradition has anything more or less valuable than another, again it comes down to compatibility, by the way, this has nothing to do with a theory that “gossip cost lives”…this is a hang up from some bygone age and completely irrelevant today, in my opinion!
What’s written above may seem to suggest that one must belong to a Tradition in order to practise Traditional Witchcraft. This is most definitely not the case, as I said they are different things…one being the adjective (the practise of Traditional Witchcraft), the other the noun (a Witchcraft Tradition)! I am however trying to stress that for some people, belonging to a particular Tradition is preferable and Tradition is not about some archaic and strict adherence to relics and meaningless customs that some may presume it to be. None of us, apart from those in hereditary groups, are literally born into a Tradition, we all start out practising on our own. When I was an eager new comer to The Craft, the www was very much in its infancy, since then I have seen an explosion of information become instantly available virtually overnight. I can say with some certainty that if I were to be that person at that age now, I think my brain would explode with the amount of information out there for newcomers and seekers. Here is where a specific Tradition can be of huge benefit. The focus of a Tradition’s unique instruction sorts and orders one’s practise in a way that jumping from teaching to teaching, technique to technique or from one patron God to the next simply cannot…unless you are made of iron will and ultra-sharp discipline that is! It is vital that we all sample a little of everything on offer before deciding what’s right for us and where our soul calls home, and in fact many Traditions wouldn’t dream of accepting a student / apprentice until they had spent time out in the world. I personally think it’s a crying shame that more Old Craft groups seem to have withdrawn into the shadows completely and are much harder for genuine seekers to find at a time when their instruction and guidance is clearly needed.
There is a more common use of the word as well which is associated with the ‘traditions’ we all know and love. In this context the word becomes synonymous with ‘custom’, perhaps even ‘superstition’. These are the often simplistic, practises well known amongst the general populace such as throwing salt over our shoulder “because it’s traditional’, we might hang a Horseshoe above the entrance to the house ‘because it’s traditional’ or shower a newly married couple with rice ‘because it’s traditional’. This tends to be where it stops for most folk, they do these things just ‘because they are traditional’ and have always been done that way. It’s true that many of these old customs continue to inspire the work of many crafters today myself included but it’s important to remember that carrying a lucky rabbits foot ‘because its traditional’ does not make one a Traditional Witch, this is why it’s so important to understand the context. The use of traditional customs and understanding the folklore of the land and people is exactly what helps us to tap into that ancestral current and shared heritage which is why so many traditional practises make their way into modern Traditional Witchcraft, equally this is why so many Witchcraft Traditions are so specific and unique to the place they are in. BUT not every Witchcraft Tradition will incorporate every bit of local lore or tradition, but what they do will have a very different application and significance to the regular salt throwing, may pole dancing, good luck charm wearing public. Many Traditional Witches (both then and now) would not take part in the public seasonal festivities usually associated with fertility and what not, but they do recognise the power of the turning tides and use them to their required ends.
To that end, one question always remains for me…which came first, the traditions of the people or the ‘Traditional’ Witch?!?