Wicca Series: Cults of Personality?

Every Monday and Friday in January we will be asking people questions about Wicca. Want to weigh in? Find the next question at the bottom of this post!

Many traditions of Wicca began as “cults of personality”. How should traditions prepare to survive beyond the loss of their founders?

Morgan Daimler responds:

I think this question could be applied to many different pagan traditions beyond just Wicca, because so many Neopagan groups began in this way. I think the key to any group surviving beyond the loss of their founder is for the founder themselves to take steps to ensure the long term viability of the group. If someone structures their group too much around themselves then it will falter when they are gone, but if the group structure is designed with transitional leadership in mind than the group can survive. The other important factor is that the group itself must have value and depth beyond the charisma of its leader, otherwise when that one person is gone everyone else will slowly drift away in search of more meaningful spirituality. A good example of this is Gerald Gardner who was definitely a man with personality, but he created a self-perpetuating tradition that has been able to succeed long after his death because the tradition itself had powerful, meaningful beliefs and a structure that lent itself to transitioning leaders. Outside of Wicca another great example would be Isaac Bonewits and the work he did founding ADF. So in the end if a group is always looking ahead and is prepared for the inevitable change of leadership, and if the group’s belief structure and practices are sound, then the group has a good chance to last.

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Lady Moonshadow Xian responds:

First I would like to establish who I am and what my background is. I am Lady Moonshadow Xian currently an active member of RavenStone Church and Seminary. I began my study of Traditional Witchcraft in 1992 at Ravenwood Church and Seminary of the Old Religion.  I was initiated by Lady Sintana with Lord Starhawk as High Priest to the First Degree at Ravenwood, to the Second Degree by Lady Deveyana Augusta Acting High Priestess with Lord Michiel as Priest of the Ravenwood Council of Elders and to the Third Degree by Lady Larina and Lord Gaelin High Priestess and High Priest of Ravenwood 2000 to 2009 with the assistance of Lady Sintana and Lord Merlin as Elder High Priestess and High Priest.

The opinions I express here are my own and are not given to be representative of any group I have previously or am currently a member of.

10th Many traditions of Wicca begin as “cults of personality”. How should traditions prepare to survive beyond the loss of their founders?

This will be one of the hardest in this series for me personally.  However it is one that having very close personal experience with it over the past year one that I hope I can share insight into.

Lady Sintana, founder of Ravenwood Church and Seminary, Inc and the Ravenwood Tradition, did not set out to found anything.  When faced with the choice of standing up for her beliefs and fighting for her religious freedom or crawling back into the broom closet, she chose to stand and fight.  She once said to me, “If you stay hidden, people will always think that you have something to hide.”

Anyone who ever met Lady Sintana knows that she was a very formidable person and a charismatic personality.  When deciding to stand and fight she drew people to her that would have otherwise remained hidden in the broom closet.  In fighting to prove that Wicca is actually a religion, she decided to frame Wicca and Ravenwood in terms that could be understood by the most people, as a “Church and Seminary”.  Then if you are a “Church” you hold “Services”: meetings where people gather together to celebrate their beliefs together. They held rituals open to the public.  Then if you are a “Seminary” you have to teach classes and train clergy. The Lady was originally arrested not for what she was charged with but because of what she was teaching.

Then  Lady Sintana had to fight to gain the legal legitimacy by formal incorporation of the “Church and Seminary”, winning the right for 501(3)(c) tax exempt status, and a property variance.  All of this is well documented history and most new cases for pagans seeking to claim their rights to religious freedom use Ravenwood’s case as precedence.

The thing that will destroy any tradition that is started as a “cult of personality” is the inability of the founder of that “cult of personality” to relinquish control.  Anyone with a forceful enough personality to fight the battles, as Lady Sintana did, has much too big an ego to fully let go the reins and allow for the progression to new leadership.  Also there are always those who will seek to take over by force or subversion.

If the Old Laws are followed the 3rd Degrees would be able to leave with Blessings and form their own group. Group founders rarely if ever let anyone go with Blessings; historically they banish anyone who requests to leave.  By the same measure, the people who wish to leave should never try to usurp the work of the group’s founder.

There are always struggles and challenges within any group religious or otherwise. But rather than banish anyone who has a differing opinion from the founder, if they would listen to advice and even enlighten people who questioned them on the process decisions were made and show the larger picture to people who might not have been able to see beyond their own narrow perspective. That is part of true leadership and teaching.

If people were allowed to formally Hive-off with Blessings and without the need to banish and rake them over the coals for wanting to leave when they had grown to a point that they felt the need to go out on their own. Even those who leave should be allowed to return and leave with Blessings and be included as part of the tradition as long as they uphold that tradition.

From all my years in the Craft, I know that most groups never last long enough to solidify into a tradition.  The founders prefer to burn down all that they have built rather than pass control on to the next generation.  Or the group self-destructs with internal power struggles. Most groups do not even attempt to incorporate or file for 501(c)(3) status much less make provisions in the bylaws of the corporation to accord any succession.

If a tradition is to survive beyond the founder, it must have a structure and mechanism with which to pass control without the destructive forces tearing it apart and people must behave honorably and honestly with one another.  There are the Old Laws to guide people if they would bother to learn them.  However, often even the people who teach them do not abide by them.

Next question:

Should Wicca be approached as a mystery tradition (like Eleusis) or a devotional path (like some forms of Hinduism)?

If you’d like to weigh in just e-mail me your short response (250-500 words) before Jan 14th. It’s sfoster at patheos.com.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • WarriorPrincessDanu

    Something I have found useful in the committees that run my residential college is, when the leaders step down (most only serve for one year, and there’s a two year term limit), if they haven’t graduated they stay involved with their committee and sometimes help the new leaders.

  • http://pagancollegestudent.blogspot.com/ WarriorPrincessDanu

    Something I have found useful in the committees that run my residential college is, when the leaders step down (most only serve for one year, and there’s a two year term limit), if they haven’t graduated they stay involved with their committee and sometimes help the new leaders.

  • Ikindewitch

    The path of Wicca is one of priesthood. Each covener is taught to first, attain priesthood through the degree system; secondly, to attain HIGH priesthood.
    A traditional Wiccan education trains shepherds – not sheep. So, when ‘elders’ or ‘founders’ step down, the coven should already be prepared to work without them and be able to elect (or, equivalent) a new ‘figurehead’ or HP(s).
    IF coveners “fall along the wayside” after the founders leave, then, it only proves it was a poorly-established coven to begin with. Furthermore, it proves that the ‘founders’ (et. al.) were more interested in ‘power trips’ and control, than the proper running of a Wiccan coven… It would be in the best interest of those left behind, to BE left behind by said ‘founders’.

  • Ikindewitch

    The path of Wicca is one of priesthood. Each covener is taught to first, attain priesthood through the degree system; secondly, to attain HIGH priesthood.
    A traditional Wiccan education trains shepherds – not sheep. So, when ‘elders’ or ‘founders’ step down, the coven should already be prepared to work without them and be able to elect (or, equivalent) a new ‘figurehead’ or HP(s).
    IF coveners “fall along the wayside” after the founders leave, then, it only proves it was a poorly-established coven to begin with. Furthermore, it proves that the ‘founders’ (et. al.) were more interested in ‘power trips’ and control, than the proper running of a Wiccan coven… It would be in the best interest of those left behind, to BE left behind by said ‘founders’.


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