Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wicca, Neopaganism and The Mysteries

One of the members of Witch Essentials was commenting about a youth who showed up on another list demanding "The Mysteries." He was informed that The Mysteries must be experienced: they can only be transmitted through ritual, not through a mailing list. Unfortunately, our Adept-to-Be took this rather poorly: how dare those fascists withhold The Mysteries from him?!?!  The fact that he was unsure of what The Mysteries entailed and unable to tell the other listmembers exactly which of The Mysteries he wanted didn't phase him. He was sure that there were Mysteries out there and by God-and-Goddess, somebody was going to give them to him or he was going to stomp his feet and hold his breath until he turned blue.

It struck me that this went to the heart of a long-standing debate in the Pagan community: the value of initiation. In the mists of pre-Christian Europe (OK, in the mid-20th century when Gerald Gardner first started dancing naked in the woods with Mrs. Clutterbuck and company), Wicca was exclusively an initiatory tradition. There were no books on the subject: the only way to learn about the Craft was to find a teacher and become initiated into a coven.

Gardner peeked his head above the hedge a bit, releasing books like Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. Later other authors would raise Aradia's veil even further. Paul Huson's 1970 Mastering Witchcraft presented a non-Gardnerian version of the Craft, while on Halloween of that same year over 1,000 people came to New York's Central Park for a "Witch-In" presided over by Strega priest and gay rights activist Leo Louis Martello. But the few books which were available were hard to find: typically one had to go to an "occult shop" or rely on mail order.  And even if you could find those precious tomes, they would still tell you that you needed to find a High Priestess and train at her feet.

Then in 1988 Scott Cunningham released Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  Cunningham knew that many people were unable to find a nearby coven and presented them with information which would allow them to honor the God and Goddess on their own. Cunningham did not present his material as a replacement for initiation: he was quite clear that the best way to learn Wicca was from an elder and the best way to practice was within a coven.  But the die was cast and the occult explosion of the 1970s became the mass-marketed witchcraft of the 1990s - a trend which only continued as the Internet allowed people from around the world to communicate and form magical orders, working groups, and online covens.

Cunningham gave the world books which they could use if they could not find an elder. This new generation wasn't so sure they needed elders at all. British Traditional Witchcraft had formed in England where the state-sponsored Anglican church retained many of the traditions of Catholicism, including apostolic succession. These new movements were largely centered in America, the land of the Puritans and other Protestant sects that favored a direct personal relationship with the Divine. Within the Wiccan mystery tradition there were no congregants, only clergy: this new Neopaganism followed that model, but it insisted that anyone could be a Priest/ess of the God and Goddess without all those pesky hierarchies and ordinations. 

Once magical books and supplies could be had only at a few select stores. Now anyone with a web browser could purchase their grimoires and tomes on Amazon and their athames and chalices on eBay. Thanks to free websites like Geocities and Angelfire, Books of Shadows and Guides to Wiccan Practice were now available within a few clicks. Once you could only join a coven after a year and a day as a dedicant (assuming you could find a coven that was accepting members, that is). Now many forums and mailing lists offered membership and the Secrets of the Craft to anyone who cared to join. 

But in this transition from a mystery religion to a mass movement the initiatory ceremonies disappeared, replaced by "self-dedication" and "self-initiation." The knife carved its own handle: the Priest/ess established the connection to the Gods and let them do the work. This neglected the historical accounts of shamans who actually were "trained by the spirits" -- generally the process was far more terrifying, arduous and dangerous than any initiatory ritual. 

I think that many people within Neopaganism are starting to feel the loss of the initiatory model and the mystery tradition. Solitary practice can certainly be meaningful, but it is no substitute for being part of a community: the Internet cannot replace the power of face to face teaching and group ritual. The  young folks are crying out for the Mysteries, even if they aren't sure what they are or how they can attain them. And I think the next generation of magical spirituality -- Neopaganism 2010 and beyond -- will move away from the freeform eclecticism which has been such a hallmark of late 20th and early 21st century American Neopaganism and back toward a more traditional, more hierarchical and more exclusive model.

I don't think the free-form be-your-own-High-Priestess model isn't going to go away any time soon (although John Michael Greer has suggested that within a few years Gardnerian-inspired Paganism may look as quaint and outdated as Theosophy, Spiritualism and Nehru jackets). But I think that there are going to be a growing number of Neopagans who want Something More, who want a spirituality which challenges them, one which declares that the Mysteries only reveal themselves to those who are willing to earn them.

(Apologies to those folks from non-Gardnerian traditions who feel slighted by my glossing over a topic which could easily rate several books.  I have concentrated on that which I know slightly and avoided that which I don't know at all).