Tradition, Innovation, and My Path In Between
And, lo! There grows a faery tree,
where do four roads and powers meet
And on it many roses bloom
With starlight; a myriad of hues
Into its secrets we are drawn
By midnight, sunset, noon, and dawn
And the mysteries of the deep
Well of stars where the Old Ones sleep
And dream of future things now past
To draw together the small and vast.
And thus conjoined; two flames in one
The witches’ fire has now been won.
I have been practicing some form of witchcraft since I was a child. During the years of my ongoing and deepening practice I have experienced a pretty full spectrum of working, having spent several years as a book-taught solitary, a member of a self-formed eclectic coven, an initiate of a Wiccan coven, and a traditionally trained and initiated priest in what is often called ‘the traditional Craft’. My magical training has been informed by several traditions, ideas, and experiences, all of which have deepened my understanding of spirituality, as well as the quality of my magical work. I have been practicing witchcraft for a significant majority of my life and so I am confident in my vision and my approach which draws from many sources to suit my specific needs, which in my opinion, is exactly the point of witchcraft to begin with.
What I have learned is that not only are there many paths to understanding the universe and our place within it, but that it is also necessary to experience –and even embody—these different ideas, techniques, cultures, world-views, etc. While each on their own may offer some modicum of wisdom, they each also possess within them the potential for tyranny which serves to enslave the ego and hinder the spirit.
I began my witchcraft career by reading as many books on the subject as I could get my hands on. In them were described various spells and techniques for altering consciousness and performing magic alongside myths and stories that sought to describe the universe in terms that were specific to a particular culture or tradition. Having armed myself with the knowledge of a few different approaches I began to practice on my own and experiment with what I had read; sometimes with great results, others not so much.
I joined with others of like mind and we began to practice together; perhaps to try a ritual out of a book, but more often to write our own using what we had learned as a general framework. This is where the power really started flowing; each of us began to trust our own inner voice just enough to allow us to drop the ego’s fear of being “wrong” and we just began to “wing it”; allowing inspiration to guide us in the moment and seeing what came of it.
It was a tremendously transformative time; the experiences that I shared with that group shaped my understanding of magic, giving me an experiential framework for magic and practices that I would later read about or be re-introduced to in other contexts. I was able to deepen my spiritual awareness in ways I had only dreamed of previously, and my confidence in my abilities grew by leaps and bounds.
Our group worked consistently until, due to that little thing called “life”, we disbanded as members moved across the country to deal with family issues and pursue other interests. I took what I had learned and practiced solitary once more, but now with a renewed understanding of how it all worked and fit together.
Around this time I began to read tarot professionally; at a bookstore here, at an event there; just enough to keep me working with the public, a far more taxing experience than simply reading for your friends or those whim you otherwise are familiar with. This gave me a sense of confidence as well; people would ask me for spiritual and magical advice and I found that I had a talent for helping people develop spiritually.
After several years of working in this way I decided that what I really needed was a tradition; an established set of methods for working magic and a culture to tie it all together. And I knew just the tradition for me. After reading Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance I was completely struck by her stories of Victor Anderson and the Faery1 tradition and I was hooked. It possessed something for me that other traditions did not: a sense of belonging, a familiarity that I couldn’t exactly describe. I set out to find a teacher, but this wasn’t as easy as I had first hoped.
While looking, I found a coven in my area that was centered in another Craft tradition. While I had met other people and groups who practiced the Craft, they generally seemed to be formed of people who wanted to learn the Craft instead of from people who had learned it and wanted to teach others. I often found myself in a leadership role in these groups, which didn’t satisfy my need to learn more about witchcraft and magic. But this group seemed different. The members were all older than me (I being a mere 20 years old at the time –the youngest member of the coven; the others being at least 10-45 years my senior). They had a Book of Shadows that they used to perform their seasonal and passage rituals… the members all had titles that described their function in the coven, and they all seemed to be versed in the ways of magic. Or, at least it seemed that way in the beginning.
After a short while I was initiated into the 1st degree. I still remember the feeling of elation I felt when the coven circled around me to chant and raise a cone of power… revealing to me their secret name of the Goddess, and channeling the power of the cone into me at its apex. I felt opened up to a higher power; I experienced a soaring sense of bliss that to this day I can recall viscerally. I was flying high for a week afterward and felt very accomplished indeed. No longer was I simply a “student” or “enthusiast”, I was an “official” witch!
The High Priest began to groom me to take over his position and so I began attending extra meetings and helping him teach public classes. I wrote materials, I assisted in rituals; anything that was asked of me I dutifully did, all in the name of studying and serving the Craft.
Then I started to notice something; while the group seemed to put on a good show for the newbies there were certain things that started to seem… “off”, at least to me. Such as the need for the members to read all of their rituals directly out of their book (which left many of the rituals feeling two-dimensional and lifeless), or the lack of magic done at a meeting, opting instead for potluck dinners consumed within a magic circle. The High Priestesses would never just speak from their heart or even memorize the rituals they were to perform. And their lackluster performances seemed in line with someone who was just learning the Craft more so than of the rank that they supposedly earned. Another was that while I had only been working with them for a few months, certain high ranking members (including the High Priest) began to seek my counsel on magical techniques as I had magical experiences that they themselves had never encountered in their traditional framework. This directly challenged my sense of learning and authority and I started to get the feeling that this was not the tradition for me. Life again intervened and I found myself heavily focused on mundane concerns, unable to attend more meetings with that group, so I practiced solitary once more.
Since I had become accustomed to people asking me about the Craft, I decided to put my experience to the test and began teaching public classes on my own. I found I was able to take my personal experiences and translate them for others so that they could benefit. I gained a deeper sense of self-confidence and control and generally found my calling as a teacher of the Craft. But something was still missing.
After a year or so I found what I was looking for; a local woman who was teaching a large group class in the Feri tradition. I signed up, paid my weekly tuition, and happily began to formally study the Craft. This was everything that I had hoped for: we were taught specific exercises, and had a space to share our experiences with those who had years of experience in the Craft. We worked with specific deities, spirits, and symbols of the tradition. Our work was slow… methodic… but could be spontaneous and at times even wild. I remember the first Feri ritual I went to… My friend (and later, husband) accompanied me to a Samhain gathering in Oakland, CA that was being offered by our teacher. We were awestruck that everyone there (at least 30 or more) seemed to know the liturgical materials, and the power of everyone chanting them in unison was palpable. Though everyone had obviously memorized the same material it didn’t seem “forced” or strained; these people had found a way to utilize traditional material in such a way as to allow it to inspire the power within them.
My reasons for wanting to formally study a tradition had largely to do with the fact that I was not the most disciplined person; in typical Piscean fashion I would skip ahead to the “cool parts” and leave the tedious and the “boring” for another day (which in all likelihood would never come). I knew that while I had learned a lot on my own that there were “holes” in my magical education and I wanted to be able to know with certainty that my training was complete and of value. I wanted more than just “book learning”; I wanted hands-on training overseen by someone who had been down that road before. I wanted it to count.
I studied for a few months with that Feri teacher, and while the material and workings were great, other life pressures meant that I was simply not in a space to commit to the class, and so I dropped out. I began circling with a local group who had wildly diverse backgrounds, including one who was an initiate of a Druidic tradition. We celebrated the Sabbats, honored the Full Moons, and generally celebrated life. I learned a lot, but it was still missing enough of a structure that I felt was necessary to establish a spiritual discipline.
A couple years later I found a teacher who finally ‘clicked’ with me, again an initiate of Feri. I trained with him for nearly 6 years before I received initiation; that crowning mark in our tradition that marks one’s entrance to the priesthood.
Learning an established tradition was quite different than what I had experienced before. For starters, when I was on my own it was left up to me to decide the direction that my studies should take. Will I practice astral projection this week? Or shall I study the Tarot? In my Feri training there was a definite curriculum that we worked with. We began with basic (“tedious”, “boring”) exercises that would form a foundation; relaxation and concentration exercises that previously had held no interest for me, now suddenly given a context that made them appealing. We worked with specific deities; with specific exercises and symbols. I diligently studied with our little private group, attended weekly classes and the occasional ritual, and constantly worked with the material in ways that challenged many of the assumptions that I had made about myself and the Craft.
In the years prior to my traditional studies I had seen a segment of the Pagan population that seemed disinterested in discipline, seeming to favor fantasy over actual learning. In internet chatrooms everywhere “High Priests” and “High Priestesses” would emerge to share their wisdom, usually in the form of regurgitated materials that had come from the latest wave of popular books, which were themselves sometimes discredited or else given little value by those witches who learned their Craft in the context of coven and tradition. This growing trend was often a source of frustration to those who had studied “in the Old Way”, and so these new “Johnny-come-lately’s” were often the butt of jokes and the targets of scorn and ridicule. It was not uncommon for traditionally-minded witches to describe those who had learned the Craft outside of a coven as being “watered-down”, “inferior”, or to invoke a much used derogatory phrase, “fluffy bunny”, common epitaphs even used perhaps by some in a manner that is “tongue-in-cheek”, but are nevertheless in service of religious prejudice and zealotry.
Within in some traditional circles the mere suggestion of eclecticism is met with scorn. The example of those who “dig many shallow wells and never a deep one” is often cited as being an argument for focusing one’s attention solely on a single path; to avoid confusions that may arise from conflicting belief systems, as well as to be able to fully master the particular material and work.
Some traditionalists believe that the inclusion of new ideas or practices dilutes or “contaminates” the traditional Craft. While this can indeed be true –consider the inclusion of Celtic or Germanic deities in an Egyptian ritual; while it is certainly possible that someone might legitimately argue for the validity of doing so, what can’t be effectively argued is the existence of a historical tradition of doing so. It is absolutely more “traditional” to invoke Egyptian (and not Celtic or Germanic) deities in an Egyptian ritual, and so the inclusion of another culture’s deities, myths, or symbolism alters the understanding of how the original religious system was intended to be experienced. Notice, however, that I have said nothing about the quality of such a ritual. While it is certainly not traditional to include another cultures deities, the argument that it should never be done is one that is born out of a sense of maintaining religious purity, and not of exploration or daring; qualities that I most definitely associate with the witch.
Where once the Craft was practiced in secret, that cat has been out of the bag for longer than I have been alive. Certainly there are covens and traditions that maintain some level of secrecy (and my own tradition is certainly among their number) but there are many, many more practitioners who have learned not in a coven, but from books, magazines, and public classes, and now even from websites, festival workshops, and online courses. This has given birth to a new generation of witchcraft; one in which the stringent attitudes of their more traditional forebears began to be thought of as “rigid”, or “dogmatic”… and the practitioners themselves as “stuck-up”, “egotistical”, leading us back to “inferior”.
What I have learned in the years I have been practicing the Craft is that both sides have it wrong. Each side claims superiority over the other, while ignoring the common thread that binds them both together. Traditionalists claim that they are practicing the “authentic” Craft and that eclectics –not having gone through the prescribed experiences—can never fully understand it; only the very specific practice or lineage afforded by the tradition is seen as being valid. Eclectics claim that traditionalists are living in the past, and that they are closing themselves off to further learning. It can be further argued that the “pure” (read: orthodox) traditionalist has lost the ability to be spontaneous and free; qualities much publicized by the Craft, modern and traditional alike.
So, which path is correct? How can we practice a witchcraft that is effective and speaks to the needs of the moment, while retaining the wisdom of the past? What sort of model do we have that can help us hold onto what is good from our past, while still giving us the ability to grow into our individual and collective futures? The answer, at least for me, is in the trees.
A tree is a perfect symbol, in my opinion, for effective and authentic witchcraft. For starters, trees have long been associated with pre-Christian spirituality and magic, spawning an entire alphabet of magical language for the pre-Christian Celtic peoples, among others. Trees also have been seen as entrances to the Otherworld, as well as certain trees being used as temple spaces; sacred sites in which to better access and commune with spirit.
Trees are often used as symbols for the idea of different worlds that intersect our own. Consider the Kabbalah as the “Tree of Life”, the Norse Yggdrasil, and the various other cultural expressions of “the World Tree”. In this, the tree acts as an axis mundi; the connection between heaven and earth, or even the Three Worlds of the Angels and Stars (Overworld), the Ancestors and Faery (Underworld), and the realm of Humans and Animals (Middleworld).
Consider the various types of experiences that are available in a magical system; those of traditional learning, discipline, and methodic work compared to inspiration, spontaneity, and innovation… all of which are important to effectively (and dare I say even traditionally) practice the Craft. The true purpose of witchcraft has always been to wield effective magic and only later to create a space of devotion for ones Gods. But these need not ever be in conflict with each other.
I feel that my life experience has been invaluable in that I have benefitted from many types of Craft training and experience and –with the perspective that nearly 3 decades of practicing witchcraft has afforded me—I can now definitively say that all of the aforementioned approaches to the Craft have their place and indeed each have something to offer the seasoned practitioner by way of underscoring the necessity of both traditional wisdom as well as exploration and experimentation.
The symbolism of the tree reflects that experience in that my roots hold steadfast as my foundation and reflects the traditional training I received and my early personal experiences. All else flows from this foundation, but nothing is restrained by it any more than the roots of a tree restrain the growing of its trunk and branches. As in the invocation that began this essay, the four roads meet at this tree, representing the powers of the physical elements. But these are also the components of a type of “complete witchcraft” that draws together many divergent threads of various types of witchcraft into a cohesive whole; the crossroads marking the spot where the prayers are made, where the magic is done, where the tree of the world connects the infernal with the heavenly. In the east, the place of air and of dawn, we find information and the communication of knowledge. This is the element of the written and spoken word, as well as the path of teaching and of learning; of acquiring and sharing of knowledge. Here is the place of study in its many forms including that provided by books, websites, and the like. In the south, the place of fire and noon, we find the warrior spirit; the honing of our sharpened will. Here, through the fires of life experience, we learn how to put our gathered knowledge into action; and how to generate the power necessary to see our actions through. This is the path of magic and sorcery, of causing transformation and change. In the west, the place of water and dusk, we find our daring or passion. Here we also find the depth of our connection to each other, as all rivers flow into the sea. Here we also find cleansing and healing, as well as visions and dreams; divination, astral travel, and shamanic journeying fulfill this path. In the north, the place of earth and midnight, we find the powers of death and the ancestors; the wisdom of the traditional Craft and the “Old Ways”. Here we are reminded of the secrecy and how keeping this practice alive can connect us to the mysteries and powers of ancestral witchcraft. This path is that of the necromancer; those who work with spirits and the Mighty Dead. Together they remind us that the real power of the Craft occurs when all four roads meet in the center, “between the worlds”, where the world tree grows.
Those branches of various practices stem from the central trunk and burst into leaf, flower, and fruit; things that are very different than the roots that hold it secure in the earth, and provide very different and very necessary functions for the tree as a whole: providing nourishment to our Craft in the form of new ideas, art, myths, and the ability to offer that nourishment to the world.
The system that forms the roots is the very same that forms the trunk and branches; each year growing in thickness, forming rings and expanding outward. This growth cycle can be seen as our collective Craft, with tradition at the heart of our magical understanding, forming the basis for our ever expanding knowledge and practice. Consider that the vast majority of those who call themselves ‘witches’ (and yes, even ‘warlocks’) today are at the very least familiar with ‘Casting a Circle’, whether or not they are able to perform it in a traditional way; thus traditional knowledge has been handed down as a basic magical ‘meme’ which carries the seed of the magic outward into the airs of communication and change. Traditions, in order to thrive, must be able to grow and change, while at the same time must also be able to retain their basic structure in order to be recognizable. Though they share some commonalities, I’m sure everyone would agree that a tree is different from a vine.
In my view, the Craft is a wild fruit-bearing tree that holds true to the Old Mysteries, and grows unabashedly into the light of the future, offering the world new food to fill their bellies. As Feri founder Victor Anderson said, “Our Pagan community is growing and showing much bright promise. The Craft is a tough weed that will grow many strange flowers and bear strange fruits, so we must try and tolerate different ways of practicing it. Learn from what we see and if we cannot use it, let the others try, even if they eat bad fruit and go balls up!”2 The drive of the Craft has always been to create… to innovate… to address the changing needs of the moment. Often this derives from the wisdom of our ancestors. But just as often we are asked to adjust our practice with the inclusion of new knowledge… new ideas… new magic. To do otherwise is to allow our magic to become dogmatic and stagnant. Tradition cannot be allowed to become the enemy of the exploration necessary to the discovery of new knowledge. And innovation cannot be allowed to disconnect us from our past. The branches cannot supersede the needs of the roots, nor can the roots usurp the needs of the branches; both are needed to make the system work. Either extreme makes for a very unhealthy tree. When in balance, the process is nothing short of the miracle of life. If we are to claim the power of the witches’ fire, we must be prepared to really look at all the ways and paths of magic that are around us. There are many ways to tap into the power.
As we move further into the 21st century we are being asked to adapt to new ways of life, while keeping a link to our past. The work I embody is to do just that; to maintain the traditional wisdom while retaining also that original sense of exploration and experimentation so vital to our continued growth. Our job as practitioners of the Craft is not simply to regurgitate what we have been taught by our teachers. Our true job is to take what we have learned and then move outward, expanding our knowledge. We must not worship our teachers. We must honor them. And to do this best we must become stronger, better, wiser. Only when we surpass our teachers does the Craft truly grow. Like parents who want better lives for their children, we must do what is best to pass on our values as well as a sense of daring and courage to move beyond the boundaries of convention and embrace that divine fire of inspiration and magic; strengthening our Craft… shaping our future.
1. This is how it was commonly spelled back then. Since our origin is as an oral tradition you can find this accurately spelled in many different ways; Faery, Fairy, Feri, Faerie, F(a)eri(e) being a few of the more popular spellings today. Victor Anderson began spelling it ‘Feri’ in the 1990’s to help distinguish our path from others bearing similar names. Some people today refer to it as ‘Anderson Feri tradition’.
2. Victor Anderson, Green Egg, Vol. XXVI, No. 100, Spring 1993
This essay was originally published in Modern Witch Magazine Vol. 1, available for purchase HERE.