Seekers and Guides: A Call from the Old Ones – the Mentoring Tradition in the Craft

Three Old Ones

I had an adventure in the Craft recently.  I invited the local members of my tradition for an impromptu Yule ceremony.  Most of the members of my current coven made it, along with two of my Second Degree initiates who had started a couple of covens of their own, and my current Coven Maiden and her brand-new students.  We were joined by my initiator Lord Redleaf.  I was excited for him to meet my students, who are a bunch of dedicated, interesting people with a commitment to the Craft.

But as I assigned those present who should have known what they were doing to Call the Quarters, I quickly realized that memorization was not something they were dedicated to.  The first of my Second Degrees had to be guided through the process because “we haven’t done this in a while.”  My Coven Maiden, in her desire to show off for her students in front of her mentors, promptly forgot an admonition I had given the coven at the previous Esbat about paying attention to what the other Quarter-Callers were doing, and she invited the Sylphs in the East when my other Second Degree student had not chosen to call the Gnomes in the North.  The student who called South is, to be fair, still learning and not yet a First Degree initiate, but she absolutely could not function without reading the words out of her Book of Shadows.  The West caller, one of my other Second Degrees, laughed and joked the whole time she was supposed to be evoking because she couldn’t remember what she was doing either.

I was embarrassed and angry.  I have been running a teaching coven now for about five years, starting new groups and releasing older ones to carry on teaching in their own way, and the least experienced of my students has been practicing for at least a year-and-a-day.  We do the same ritual every single time.  The words have not changed and the entities called have not changed.  There is no reason why they should not know how to do it.  Therefore, I have failed as a teacher.

My initiator was not pleased.  And worst of all, the Old Ones were not pleased.  Our tradition has a lineage that traces from multiple sources, and as my mentor called me to task in front of my students for my incompetence, he felt someone, or several someones, speaking through him.  The Old Ones, the ancestors of our tradition, came to deliver my public chastisement.  You have failed as a teacher, Lady Sable, they said.  You have failed to impart the importance of solemn ritual.  This is not a game!  You cannot play at magick! How can your students be so disrespectful?

My students, and the students of my students, were mortified.  To their credit, the ones who had messed up were thoroughly embarrassed.  The poor student who called South tried to quit the coven because she has so much trouble memorizing the words.  My Coven Maiden flushed and apologized, and admitted to her High Priestess’ syndrome causing her to show off; but I don’t think she grasped the importance of the situation.  My Second Degree student who called West laughed it off.  “It’s not your fault,” she said.  “I don’t know why you’re being blamed.  I’m your rebellious teenager, remember?  It’s my fault.”  And when I took everyone to task on the Facebook group we use to arrange lessons and meetings, a friend of the tradition, who comes from a Reclaiming and Dianic background, undermined what I was trying to do when she typed that this was the problem with hierarchical traditions, and non-hierarchical traditions were above all this.

They don’t get it.  But I think it’s important to understand, so I chose to write about it here.  And I hope I can successfully impart the message.

Wicca is a counter-cultural movement.  As such, we tend to attract a lot of free-thinkers and radicals who want to go their own way.  And that’s a good thing.  Statistically, most of us are solitaries, trying to find our individual paths through the wilderness of learning the Craft and Paganism in general.  Again, that leads to a lot of individuality and I don’t like sheep as a rule, so I view this as positive.  We come to the Craft because we want to be our own Priestesses and Priests, not obedient congregations.  This isn’t a bad thing either.  The Rede, I have argued, is all about taking personal responsibility.

But there is a shadow side to everything, and the shadow of all this freedom of choice is how do you gauge what you know?

I suppose this is only relevant if you consider the practice of magick and ritual as a skill.  If you don’t, it doesn’t matter.  But I do.  Magick is a skill that you practice and hone over years of learning techniques, wading through the sludge of your subconscious in a quest for self-improvement so that you stop interfering with your own Work, and it is grounded in knowledge which must be acquired over time and study.  Judy Harrow noted in her book Wicca Covens that it takes an average of seven to ten years to go from beginner to Third Degree initiate in most traditions that still observe a degree system these days; and that it takes about the same amount of time (and work!) to study for a doctorate degree!  It’s hard!  Ritual should indeed be fun and exciting – after all, the Goddess Charges us to have “mirth and reverence” – but it isn’t about playing dress-up and pretending we have the starring roles in the latest Harry Potter flick.  It’s about teaching our Will to influence the Universe.  It’s serious business.

And it needs to be taken seriously.  My initiator likens much of the Craft to the practice of the martial arts, and the mentoring process that has taken place traditionally in the Craft to martial arts mentorship.  You go to a sensei, and the sensei teaches you his skills.  There is no timetable and no formal exam, but there are belts that indicate your level of understanding (most traditions use cingulums.)  You train until you feel you are ready, and then you test for the belt.  Your mentor tells you if you have passed or failed.  If you don’t succeed, like a driving test, you study and practice some more and you try again.

In the Orient, there are customs associated with this process.  You have obligations to your mentor, to look out for him and take care of him when needed; and he has obligations to you.  And when he says that you are ready for the level that is marked by a particular belt, and you fail to uphold the skills and obligations of that belt, it is he who has failed.  He has brought shame on himself and his mentor, and all the mentors who came before him.  This system of accounting maintains a certain standard of training and knowledge, and is self-policing.

Ideally, that is what the traditional mentoring system looks like.  It’s not about lording it over someone that you have a different colored belt.  It’s about passing on a set of skills that have been carefully developed over many generations by someone who was as dedicated to the Art as you are.  You need to respect all that teaching that came before you; even as eclectics with no tradition and no desire to be part of one, you have learned from the labors of others.  You don’t owe them obedience – remember, in the Craft we are taught to be humble, and so we kneel before the postulant – but if you value what you are learning, you do owe respect.  And respect means that when someone extends herself to teach you their skills, you need to do your very best to learn what it is that they believe is important enough to teach you.  That also means that if you are struggling, you need to ask your teacher for help, so that she knows that you are struggling and has the opportunity to find a method to be helpful to you.  Of course, that means you also have an obligation to participate in helping yourself, rather than throwing your hands up in the air and waiting for someone to rescue you.

Most of us treat the study of the Craft as something fun to do on the weekends when we’re bored and we feel like it.  And I am highly resistant to schedules and rules and anything at all that I am required to do myself.  But here’s the thing; in order to get better at something, even if you’re naturally talented, you have to practice.  You have to do it.  If you don’t, you will fail.  And not all of that practice is going to be fun and adventurous and glamorous.  For example: I knew from the time I was ten years old that when I grew up, I wanted to be writer.  Because I was dedicated to this goal, I took an entire year of Typing and Computers.  It was the most boring class I have ever had occasion to suffer.  My creative mind loathed typing the same nonsensical crap over and over and over again.  But today I have a 72 wpm typing rate and writing is not a time-consuming, key-picking process.  It was worth it.

I believe that the Old Ones are asking us to be dedicated and to take our Craft seriously.  They are asking us to respect those who have formed the footprints in which we tread.  I believe that they want their legacy to last and their hard-won skills to benefit others.  I urge us all to answer their call.  Do it on your coven’s schedule or do it on your own schedule, but give your study and practice the attention and focus that it deserves.  Or else, why bother at all?

Next column:  Johnny’s Mnemonics: Tricks and Tools to Aid Memorization

Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is also a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiated Wiccan priestess in the Star Sapphire tradition. She makes her living doing psychic and Tarot readings, writing, and teaching workshops, and she is also a speculative fiction writer and a musician. Sable is the author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power: A Complete Course in Magick and Witchcraft" (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2014). She continues to write "Seekers and Guides" at her new blog Between the Shadows here at Patheos Pagan, and she also writes a column called "49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives" at PaganSquare. For further information, please visit her website

  • kenofken

    This is the very reason I’m glad I put degreed traditions far behind me. There’s a point at which taking the Craft serious crosses over into people taking themselves far too seriously and traditional initiatory covens tend to drive way on that side of the line. The result is a joyless and rigid and authoritarian discipline that mirrors the worst excesses of Calvinism, SSPX Catholicism or Pharisaic Judaism.

    I get that people should not approach ritual with a trivial or disrespectful attitude, but does a fumble at quarter calling really rise to the level where a humiliating public dressing down is in order? Is that really ever the best way to handle things? I can perhaps see times for that if, for example, someone broke space or came to ritual drunk and disorderly or started gabbing at Samhain’s dumb supper. It would also be a different matter if the task at hand was heavy magick like banishing or healing that demanded total unwavering focus, or someone’s initiation.

    But at Yule? It’s the one rest stop of mirth in a dark time spent mostly thinking on death and inner work. You had a group of people who were almost certainly run ragged from shopping, traveling, the treadmill of entertaining and visiting and family obligations which, for most Wiccans, effectively means having to do triple holidays – secular, Wiccan and usually Christian for the rest of their clan. You probably had some people who were excited about reunions, nervous about performing for the mighty Lord Redleaf and the leaders of hived groups who may not have done your word for word ritual for a couple of years.

    Those Second Degree folks in particular are no longer sit-at-your feet, wax-on, wax off dedicants. They are your guests and peers, as you are to your initiator. That calls for a certain amount of collegiality and discretion in how you deal with each other. There’s just no good reason for calling one another on the carpet in front of everyone unless it’s a truly egregious affront to the gods or a safety issue. What he did is an guaranteed way to drive people away from a tradition, and I’d bet my last dime that it did far more to disrupt the working than the offence it was meant to correct. With that sort of rancor in the air, it was a waste of time to even carry out the rest of the ritual.

    This is where the argument crosses into eclectic vs trad. I started off in a coven much like yours, and I give trad work its due. It taught me the mechanics, and yes, the discipline of energy work and ritual. They could raise a fair cone of power and I’m sure still can. Their ritual also never varied, and I’m not convinced that’s all to the good. The sturdy harness of rote ritual easily becomes a crutch, and even a straight jacket. In the more free-flowing trad that has evolved around me and my wonderful priestess, we have written rituals, but we are not beholden to them. Most of our best work happens when we get out of our own way and let the ritual flow in its own way, never precisely the same twice. The real power and beauty of Wicca lies not in flawless recitation of formulas and incantations. It is a conversation, a dance with Goddess and God. We come to them with ultimate respect, but we trust them to set the tone of the encounter. Sometimes it’s dead serious, sometimes mirthsome, somtimes downright goofy, sometimes all in turn.
    Don’t get so caught up in your craft that it overshadows the Craft.

    • Sable Aradia

      Thank you for your interest in my column.

  • John Beckett

    Sable, though I work in a less-structured tradition, I’ve been on both sides of the situation you described. When I’ve been the student who failed, I knew what to do – recommit myself to practice, go over rituals multiple times before presenting them, don’t assume I know something well enough to do it without proper preparation.

    When I’ve been the teacher who failed, though, I’ve struggled to figure out what to do differently, beyond re-emphasizing the basics. What will you do differently because of this experience?

    • Sable Aradia

      I think perhaps that I am a little too relaxed in my training process. I used to really fret about whether or not people were doing the exercises I assigned, but I quickly learned that I was only going to set myself up for disappointment. In recent years I’ve been much more blase; I assign the exercises, and if my students do them, great; if they don’t, I move on anyway after the first one or two reminders. Eventually I find that the ones who are dedicated will persist; the ones who are not will leave and go elsewhere. Mostly in a teaching coven, I go over lessons in sacred space, and then I assign the exercise, trust people to do it at their own pace, and then we go over it the following month. Maybe I should be a little more directed about it. I would like to thank you for such an intelligent question! I respect your writing and you seem a wise individual, John; I would welcome your recommendations and suggestions.

  • Xiaorong

    In general, this was a very interesting article for me since I’m a solitary who is not a part of any tradition. But it was incredibly jarring to hear you talk about how things are done in “The Orient” – are you still referring to parts of East Asia as the Orient? Really?

    • Sable Aradia

      I mean no disrespect. But I couldn’t tell you the difference between how things are done in Hap Ki Do and Tae Kwan Do (which are Korean in origin,) Kung fu in its various forms (which is Chinese) and Aikido, Karate and Kenjutsu (which are Japanese.) Rather than get it wrong, I was trying to be inclusive. This is not an article about martial arts per se, nor is it an article about specific nations and their practices. I myself only have a smattering of mixed martial arts mostly grounded in judo and am just now starting to learn arnis. Come on, cut me a break.

      • Xiaorong

        I don’t take issue with the differences between martial arts, which I am not an expert in either. The problem is lumping together a vast swath of Asia (most of which are really different from one another, have had really different histories and traditions, and have had very contentious pasts with one another) into one really vague, exoticized idea of the Other that mostly exists in opposition to the West, as opposed to a very diverse geographical region in its own right. (especially a really old term like “Oriental”). It’d be cool to just refer to Japan (since you specifically mention a sensei), or even “parts of Asia” – just, please, not “The Orient”. That’s just so weird and antiquated.

        • Sable Aradia

          All right, touche. I am sorry. You are right; perhaps “Japan” or “parts of Asia” would have been better.

          • Xiaorong

            Thanks, Sable. Aside from that phrase, I did really appreciate the rest of the article!

  • Natalie Reed

    Sable – I am sorry that this happened to you. I work with a less structured group that tends to lean toward celebration with intermittent seriousness. There is room for differing paths, one of the beauties of our “Big Tent”. That aside, I do not think that public humiliation is acceptable, and in fact it smacks of abuse. I, personally, would question the motives and sincerity of anyone behaving in such a manner in public, and in sacred space.

    • Sable Aradia

      Thanks for the sympathy Natalie; but I’m not sorry this happened at all. First of all, maybe we need our heads deflated every once in a while. Second, it had the desired effect, which was to get the students to take it seriously. I ran into one of my Seconds just this afternoon, and he assured me he was going back to the basics and re-learning the material; and I believed him. Sometimes someone has to be firm I think; that’s what I’m saying in this article. But don’t forget, I wrote an article about the value of personal gnosis not long ago either. (And incidentally – I feel I must defend Lord Redleaf here. Note that the words in italics are *not* in quotation marks. It was the general message that I feel the Old Ones were trying to get across. What he actually said, word for word, was: “I am not pleased. I am not pleased at all. This is unacceptable. Three Second Degrees in the circle . . . ?”)

      • Christine Kraemer

        I would feel similarly, that the experience was ultimately a good thing. When more is expected of us (at least, within our capabilities), we’re more likely to grow. Teachers who pushed me hard have sometimes pulled performances out of me that I didn’t think I was capable of, and that is great service.

  • A Witch’s Ashram

    I just now saw this post, but it goes hand in hand with my recent post
    on being a student. Yours is from the teacher’s perspective, but I think
    we’re making similar points! I too have a hard time memorizing, but I
    agree that it’s worth the effort. If one hasn’t practiced in a while, it
    would be wise to bow out. After all it wasn’t a practice circle, it was
    a ritual – for everyone and the gods.

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