In my last blog about the Gardnerians, I indicated that, because of changes in his life situation, in 1973 Ray Buckland found himself at loose ends. Further, after a decade of administering the Long Island coven, he had come to see some disadvantages in the Gardnerian Tradition as received from Lady Olwen, particularly its hierarchic structure.
The “Old Laws” or “Ardanes,” which both Doreen Valiente and I have established were not written until 1959, do provide for two kinds of governing structure in a coven. The first is the rather monarchic rule by the High Priestess. The other is governance by a Council of Elders, which becomes possible once the coven has several Second or Third Degree initiates. However, in practice, the latter system seems to be rare. Usually a Third Degree High Priestess is expected to hive off and form her own coven, although she still owes fealty to the High Priestess who elevated her to the Third Degree and who thus becomes her Queen. This custom at least avoids the common stress from having two Queen Bees in the same hive. The new High Priestess is expected to abide by the established rules of her mother coven and of the Tradition and is subject to sanctions if she does not. This situation is difficult to harmonize with another Tradition, that each coven should be autonomous. This situation is usually dealt with by diplomacy and compromise, but serious problems do arise.
Really, in practice there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a hierarchic structure and firmly established rules—at least for people who are psychologically suited to that sort of society. For them, such aspects of the Tradition produce a subculture, with a clearly defined membership, with members who are fiercely loyal to it and derive from it a sense of safety, stability, and a secure lifestyle. Such an attitude is quite parallel to attitudes and benefits within Orthodox Judaism. The rise of Reform, Reconstructionist, and even secular Judaism has been salutary; these versions have been possible within and suited to our far more liberal society that evolved after the revolutions of the Enlightment. Nevertheless, it was clearly the stubborn adherence to fulfillment of the commandments that enabled Judaism to survive through the many grim centuries during which it was miraculous that Judaism could survive at all.
Similarly, it is “orthodox” Gardnerianism that may yet guarantee that “the Gods will preserve the Craft.” On the other hand, the fact that the synagogue was the first truly democratic organization in history was also a key to the survival of Judaism. That fact is also relevant for Gardnerian Tradition and for the Craft in general, and deserves careful thought. In addition, many people in our times are not psychologically suited to a hierarchic structure at all; rather, they feel thoroughly stifled by it. It was to the needs of such people that Ray Buckland turned his thoughts in 1973.
In 1973 Ray Buckland could see that the Craft as a religious movement was going to need a much more democratic version than strict Gardnerianism seemed able to provide. By then he could also see that the explosive growth of the overall Craft movement that he, John Hansen, Ed Fitch, Joe Wilson, and others had foreseen by 1970 had indeed come to pass. A much more flexible version of the Craft was already needed to meet the needs of these new potential Witches. The Pagan Way movement had been very successful, as I will discuss further later on, but it did not and was not intended to initiate anyone into the Craft as such. I want to note here that it would not have taken off if it had not had Ray’s approval. Ray had the respect of everyone in the Craft at that time—and still does—as the authority on what was or was not compatible with the Craft.
What Ray did was found Seax-Wica in 1973, using an amalgam of some Gardnerian traits and some from Saxon magical traditions, much as the older pre-Gardnerian Witches had melded whatever looked useful in the now-available Gardnerian Wicca with their own traditions. He also introduced innovations in this new version of the Craft. One problem he had observed was that so far, the only way to become a Witch, that is, a member of the Craft as a religious movement, was to be initiated into a coven. That is, one needed somebody else’s permission to join. However, in our society, it is generally assumed that the decision to join a faith community should be strictly private. True, becoming Jewish or Catholic is a long procedure with many hoops to jump through, but the sort of person who would like to become a Witch is usually not inclined to be patient with such bureaucracy. Therefore in both of his next books, The Complete book of Witchcraft, known as the Big Blue Book and widely regarded as one of the most definitive descriptions ever of the nature and practice of the Craft, and his The Tree, which is specifically the founding document of the Seax-Wica Tradition, he introduced the concept that self-initiation is valid and provided rituals to enable anyone to carry that out.
Of course, no self-initiated person with any common sense would regard himself or herself as being equal in authority or ability with a fully trained High Priestess of a coven, but regarding oneself as equivalent to a First-Degree Witch whose training was about to be initiated would be and has been perfectly appropriate. Ray thus opened up the Craft movement to a huge influx of new members. A self-initiated Witch who undertakes a curriculum of self-education in the Arts of the Craft can in fact become equivalent to the High Priestess or High Priest of a coven. I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing many Witches who have traveled that path, who have been hard-working leaders in the Craft for decades, and who have been and still are my good friends. We email each other reasonably often.
Soon after founding Seax-Wica, Ray moved from New York to Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, from where he published the Seax-Wica Voys during the 1970s. He commented (in SWV no. 3, p.18) that “Samhain 1973 was to be the first actual Seax-Wica Sabbat held,… in the Lakes region of New Hampshire.”
There is an excellent essay by Daven on the Witchvox website describing the advantages of the Seax-Wica Tradition, and I want here to share some of his ideas and insights.
One thing that was a novelty in 1974 when Buckland started Seax-Wica was that none of the ceremonies or rites were secret. There was no oath of secrecy binding members of the groups together, nor was there an iron-clad rule that stated everything learned must be passed down without any changes. Individual Priests and Priestesses were encouraged to do research and add to the tradition if it suited them, and to share that knowledge with everyone that was interested. . . . Raymond Buckland . . . wrote The Tree, which was published in December of 1974. This book encouraged the seeker to look beyond what he wrote and to add it to the tradition if they wanted to. . . . One other major difference is that Seax-Wica, unlike most traditional groups, recognizes self initiation. The rationale for this stance can be summed up in one phrase, “who initiated the first Witch?” As such, the declaration of Self Dedication is seen as just as valid as a coven initiation, and little to no emphasis is placed upon “So and so, initiated by whom, initiated by this person…” or the lineage of a witch. While this can and does cause some conflict with other traditions, it also encourages those who have little to no contact with other like-minded people to acknowledge their deities and their choice of religion.
Over the following years, the Seax-Wica Tradition attracted at least several thousand members. Eventually Ray burned out on the work of leading the Tradition (that happens to Craft leaders a lot; I think Ray shares my attitude that “The trouble with being a leader is that you get followers”) and turned it over to the membership to govern however they saw fit. Another reason for his doing so was to devote more time to his writing. During the last several decades, Ray has become one of the most prolific and trustworthy writers in America on things witchy, magical, psychic, occult, and arcane. He’s almost 80 now. I’m glad he and I are both still around, and I remain grateful to him for his high opinion of my own work.