Wicca Series: Initiatory Wicca still matter?

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!

With the increased access to information and growing numbers of solitaries, does initiatory Wicca still have something to offer?

*Once again everyone is speaking from their own point of view and not that of their traditions. The songs this time may seem a bit odd, but I chose popular music that reminded me of the Horned One.*

Sunweaver responds:

In my opinion, and some in my tradition and community will differ from me here, the initiatory path offers something that solitary practice does not. This is not to say, of course, that excellent priests and priestesses cannot come from solitary practice. I am well acquainted with some of these who have decided that the initiatory path is not their path to follow and their work is just as powerful, just as meaningful as those of us who have chosen an such a path. A person self-taught in music can create beautiful, complex works as well as a person who spent years in formal training and tutoring, but in many ways, the solitary path is a harder one to take. An experienced teacher and community can lend that experience to the seeker or neophyte. My own path would have been much different if I hadn’t decided to take a teacher and I am, indeed, quite grateful for what I’ve learned from them. It is, perhaps, more difficult to garner a deeper understanding of your own faith, how to practice, and how to serve others if the seeker chooses not to take a teacher.

There is another issue here: the initiation itself. Done well, the initiation causes a marked change in the initiated. Even if the candidate has read a text that outlines the ritual and “knows” what is going to happen, the actual experience can be a deeply meaningful and transformative one. Childbirth and motherhood is the same way. You can read about it and research all you like, but the experience changes you in a fundamental way. I’ve seen this change and recognized it not only in myself, but in priests and priestesses whose initiations I have participated in.

I chose an initiatory path because it was my intention to become a clergyperson and serve my gods by serving my community. This is not for everyone and nor would I recommend it to those who are not called to that kind of service. In the end, it is most important to choose a path that will enrich your life and serve your gods in the most effective way you know how. As Joseph Campbell would say: Follow your bliss.

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Lady Moonshadow Xian (House of RavenStone) responds:

With the wealth of information available I believe that many people will chose the path of a solitary. Some people are just not “joiners”. Others have simply been completely alienated by their experiences with organized religion that the very idea of being part of a group is abhorrent. I can understand their point of view.

I was tossed out of the family Baptist church at the age of seven. From my early life experiences I didn’t believe them when they told me “Jesus doesn’t let bad things happen to children.” By that time I had seen the violent death of my older sister in an automobile accident. Had been injured myself in the same accident. And had seen one of the kids I played with in the neighborhood waste away with leukemia. I knew it was a lie. I was the child that scared the Sunday school teachers because I asked difficult questions about things that many adults had not yet faced.

I came to my own beliefs through the love of nature and the outdoors. I always kept track of the phases of the moon and seasons. Watched and learned about weather, plant and animals. They were my own beliefs and I thought totally unique.

Then I was introduced to Wicca by way of Lord Merlin of Ravenwood at a writer’s group meeting. He basically outlined my personal beliefs and told me to “Seek ye the Lady of Ravenwood.” And left me standing in the parking lot.

I was trained in a traditional group. Books and information were not nearly as readily available as they are now. I see that as both a blessing and a curse. I love books and think people should read more. The abundance of information can be overwhelming and it seems that there is now more bad information than good. You can learn a great deal from the books out there as long as you use good judgment as to what you internalize as good information. Some people will be content with the path they build with this information. However I think that most people desire community. They also reach a point that they feel they have learned all that they can on their own and now need a teacher or guide. If this were not the case people would not seek out festivals, gatherings and open circles to attend.

You can practice Wicca as a solitary and never need to be part of a group or community and never desire initiation. You do not need anyone between you and the Divine as you are part of the Divine.
There are things that can only be learned through experience and with the guidance of a teacher.
Initiation is far different from self dedication. It is a formal introduction to greater powers and the Elder Gods. You can not be a Witch/Priestess/Priest without being an Initiate. “It takes a Witch to make Witch.”

The Initiatory path will always continue. It may not always be the most popular path. It is not the only path. It is not the easy path. It is the best path for me.

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Callisto (Alexandrian tradition) responds:

If Initiatory Wicca (BTW) had somehow become outmoded or no longer appealed to modern practitioners, it would have fallen to the wayside by now, or show evidence of dwindling interest in it. That has not been the case. Rather, BTW and Solitary Wicca (SW) are two distinct forms of Craft, and the appeal of each is equally different. The advent of the latter does not impact the value or continuity of the former.

BTW is a priesthood, a collective in which the initiates are in service to their gods in a particular way. It appeals to those who are attracted to being part of a history and contributing to its continuity. It appeals to those who are drawn to being part of something bigger than themselves, yet still facilitates the individual’s journey. It’s a path that existed before the individual became an initiate and it will continue to exist long after he crosses over. Solitary Wicca, as the name indicates, centers on the individual. It is not a pre-existing path, but one created by each practitioner, tailored to his personal needs. Its beginning and end rests with him, only taking shape as the person defines and continues it.

As someone who’s been a witch for 30 years, with the past 2 decades specifically as a BTW, I’ve witnessed Traditions continue to celebrate new initiates and new covens within their various lines with no signs of slowing down. Also, a common misconception is that Solitary Wicca descends from Initiatory Wicca, technically it doesn’t. More correctly, they’re independent of each other. SW borrows elements of BTW, a base upon which the person cultivates his own mode of practice, often by also drawing on other paths. There was no splintering within BTW, no group of initiates deciding it no longer functions so a departure was needed. Rather, Solitary Wicca came into its own, addressing interests that are different from those addressed by BTW. Some reasons often heard is that a person is isolated and/or cannot find a traditional coven in which to train (but some would seek BTW initiation if they could). A more common sentiment is the person is simply not interested in being part of a collective, and/or doesn’t feel in agreement with all the practices associated with BTW, or simply feels drawn to elements of other practices too and prefers to design his own practice. These are all perfectly understandable reasons – if a path doesn’t fit the individual (nor the individual fits it), it makes sense to seek out what does, or create it for one’s self.

It’s not very likely either one will replace the other because they differ in appeal, approach and purpose. They exist independently of each other and each will, no doubt, continue to flourish.

“Different strokes for different folks.”

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As for me? Well, I’ve made it clear that I study trad Craft and I’m reaching the point where it’s time to consider if I’m ready for initiation. I need to find time to sit with my priestess and have a good chat about it. Maybe she will think I’m ready. Maybe she won’t. Maybe I won’t feel quite ready. I want to be initiated but it’s a big decision and I’ve been Pagan long enough to learn to listen and observe and trust the energies and signs.

Yet it was not so long ago that I didn’t believe initiatory Wicca had anything to offer. I had been a solitary for almost a decade, exploring different Pagan religions sort of half-heartedly on my own, and didn’t have much patience with Pagans in groups. While my personal practice was satisfying I wanted more. The Horned One was taking a rather active interest in my life in several ways, not all of them pleasant. Some distinctly unpleasant. Part of it was learning that solitary practice does not really prepare you for trad Craft, that “not all that glitters is gold” and that the Craft, whether solitary or traditional, must be a living, breathing thing.

When I met my HPS and HP I had decided I wanted absolutely nothing to do with trad Craft. I’d tried it and I’d been scarred by the experience. Yet it was my bad experience that prepared me to be ready to be a student again. I’m blessed to be a student of a grounded, practical and earthy tradition that has allowed me to be active and challenged me, and even as a student has given me opportunity to dance with the Mystery. Being involved with trad Craft also has not negated my personal practice but enhanced it.

I think initiatory Wicca matters or I wouldn’t have taken endless notes for the past year and pushed myself to understand and connect the teachings of my tradition to my own understanding. Yet I know every coven and every tradition is different. Trad Craft is sometimes seen by outsiders as a whole, but it’s microcosm is as diverse as the Pagan macrocosm it inhabits. I think initiatory Wicca will survive, but which forms will thrive will have a lot to say about it’s future. Even if you look at it’s origin myths, Wicca has been ever an evolutionary (often revolutionary!) religion, and the key to evolution is, well, Darwin said it best:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

Our spiritual ancestors knew this, and will guide us if we are willing to listen.

This concludes the Wicca Series, which has been an unexpected yet fascinating project. I’m currently consulting with folks as to what we will focus on in February. We will feature other Pagan religions in the future, and we will have something announced for February by the end of the week. In the meantime have a Blessed Imbolc and thanks for participating and reading!

About Star Foster

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

  • http://twitter.com/thesilverspiral Naya Aerodiode

    As a third degree who has been initiated and brought up in a traditional form of Wicca, I cannot stress enough the importance that initiation has had on my development. It has brought about marked changes, profound insights, and experiences that I just would not have had in a non-initiatory setting. Having my HP and HPS as constant teachers, guides, and friends has helped me more than books ever could have. The experiences of my initiations and elevations are ones that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s a hard road that isn’t for everyone, but for the people who need it, nothing else will do.

  • http://twitter.com/thesilverspiral Naya Aerodiode

    As a third degree who has been initiated and brought up in a traditional form of Wicca, I cannot stress enough the importance that initiation has had on my development. It has brought about marked changes, profound insights, and experiences that I just would not have had in a non-initiatory setting. Having my HP and HPS as constant teachers, guides, and friends has helped me more than books ever could have. The experiences of my initiations and elevations are ones that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s a hard road that isn’t for everyone, but for the people who need it, nothing else will do.

  • Cat C-B

    How odd! This article seems to posit that the alternatives are initiatory Wicca and solitary practice. That overlooks a number of alternatives, ranging from initiatory Wiccan/Witch traditions in which solitary practice is the norm outside of training and initiation, to self-initiation (I know, I know–a controversial topic for some, but there have been a lot of us out here for many years, arguing that the gods seemed OK with it) to bootstrapped covens without an initiatory requirement.

    I’m not trying to say that initiation is something without benefit. There are many possible benefits–and many possible functions to initiation within Wicca.

    But this is a separate question from whether or not one chooses to work with a group; implying otherwise means you’re looking at too small a range of Wiccan practices here!

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      Possibly. In my area the main options are solitary and initiatory Wicca. I know there are “bootstrap” covens and informal groups but I honestly don’t have enough experience with them to have an opinion. Well, other than they didn’t interest me.

      Actually we haven’t had a lot of response from bootstrap and informal covens this entire series, which is odd.

      • Cat C-B

        I’m a former bootstrapper who got an initiatory training in a family tradition of Wicca that (deliberately) has no name. (Reading the ruckus going on around Feri/Faery of late, that seems wise.) And I used to be fairly active in COG, another good source of info for the range which is Wicca/Witchcraft.

        And I’m a head case for trivia–I’ve studied in detail just about everything I could find on just about every tradition out there, chasing down various practices, beliefs, and liturgies. This kind of stuff just interests me!

        So I am speaking from direct personal knowledge–and from a sense of the range of things outside my knowledge. And one of the most interesting (to me) things about Wicca is how little can be reliably generalized!

        In any case, there are a lot of trads out there. Mine, though tiny, has been around at least since the mid-Sixties, and literally encompasses three or more generations of two intermarried families–plus a few tacked-on outsiders like my husband and I, and our various initiates. I know that I have circled with at least eight or nine trads outside of the “Big Two” (Gardnerians and Alexandrians) and their derivatives, some with histories that go back only a few decades, others which can be documented at least as far back as the Alexandrians can go.

        (Not that older is necessarily better. But I’m talking about trads as opposed to bootstrapped groups, like my original coven, so I wanted to be clear.)

        It’s absolutely clear to me that virtually everyone has cross-pollinated to some degree. It’s also clear that there remain a lot of distinctives–and that the individuals you circle with, whether in a bootstrapped or lineaged coven, and their and your own ability to connect with the gods and spirits, are more significant than any other differences between trads/paths.

        • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

          I think you’re right about cross-pollination. Almost every trad I’ve had contact with has a very small body of “original” material and the rest has been fleshed out from here and there. I once told a friend of mine that my trad draws from eclectic sources and he made a comment that “eclectic just means honest”.

          I’m not interested in secrets and “pure” traditions (although I once was) and really embrace my tradition because what they do works, not just in circle but outside of it. It’s family, it’s church and it’s Mystery all in one.

          You know my very first book on Wicca, the Witches Bible, was actually designed to be a manual for “bootstrap” covens. There’s always the joke of who initiated the first Witch?

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      Plus, I find it hard to distinguish what is Wicca outside of solitary and trad Craft. While many Pagan groups use Wiccan forms and language not all claim the name of Wicca, and some actively despise the Wiccan label while engaging in Wiccan practice.

      As always, Paganism is messy and never cut and dried.

  • Cat C-B

    How odd! This article seems to posit that the alternatives are initiatory Wicca and solitary practice. That overlooks a number of alternatives, ranging from initiatory Wiccan/Witch traditions in which solitary practice is the norm outside of training and initiation, to self-initiation (I know, I know–a controversial topic for some, but there have been a lot of us out here for many years, arguing that the gods seemed OK with it) to bootstrapped covens without an initiatory requirement.

    I’m not trying to say that initiation is something without benefit. There are many possible benefits–and many possible functions to initiation within Wicca.

    But this is a separate question from whether or not one chooses to work with a group; implying otherwise means you’re looking at too small a range of Wiccan practices here!

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Possibly. In my area the main options are solitary and initiatory Wicca. I know there are “bootstrap” covens and informal groups but I honestly don’t have enough experience with them to have an opinion. Well, other than they didn’t interest me.

      Actually we haven’t had a lot of response from bootstrap and informal covens this entire series, which is odd.

      • Cat C-B

        I’m a former bootstrapper who got an initiatory training in a family tradition of Wicca that (deliberately) has no name. (Reading the ruckus going on around Feri/Faery of late, that seems wise.) And I used to be fairly active in COG, another good source of info for the range which is Wicca/Witchcraft.

        And I’m a head case for trivia–I’ve studied in detail just about everything I could find on just about every tradition out there, chasing down various practices, beliefs, and liturgies. This kind of stuff just interests me!

        So I am speaking from direct personal knowledge–and from a sense of the range of things outside my knowledge. And one of the most interesting (to me) things about Wicca is how little can be reliably generalized!

        In any case, there are a lot of trads out there. Mine, though tiny, has been around at least since the mid-Sixties, and literally encompasses three or more generations of two intermarried families–plus a few tacked-on outsiders like my husband and I, and our various initiates. I know that I have circled with at least eight or nine trads outside of the “Big Two” (Gardnerians and Alexandrians) and their derivatives, some with histories that go back only a few decades, others which can be documented at least as far back as the Alexandrians can go.

        (Not that older is necessarily better. But I’m talking about trads as opposed to bootstrapped groups, like my original coven, so I wanted to be clear.)

        It’s absolutely clear to me that virtually everyone has cross-pollinated to some degree. It’s also clear that there remain a lot of distinctives–and that the individuals you circle with, whether in a bootstrapped or lineaged coven, and their and your own ability to connect with the gods and spirits, are more significant than any other differences between trads/paths.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          I think you’re right about cross-pollination. Almost every trad I’ve had contact with has a very small body of “original” material and the rest has been fleshed out from here and there. I once told a friend of mine that my trad draws from eclectic sources and he made a comment that “eclectic just means honest”.

          I’m not interested in secrets and “pure” traditions (although I once was) and really embrace my tradition because what they do works, not just in circle but outside of it. It’s family, it’s church and it’s Mystery all in one.

          You know my very first book on Wicca, the Witches Bible, was actually designed to be a manual for “bootstrap” covens. There’s always the joke of who initiated the first Witch?

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Plus, I find it hard to distinguish what is Wicca outside of solitary and trad Craft. While many Pagan groups use Wiccan forms and language not all claim the name of Wicca, and some actively despise the Wiccan label while engaging in Wiccan practice.

      As always, Paganism is messy and never cut and dried.

  • kenneth

    The debate is much more complex than whether initiatory Wicca “still matters.” I think it will always have a place, but the time has long since passed when it has defined the movement or most people’s experience of it, and I think we are immeasurably richer for it, even if it brought its share of problems. Some here say initiation was a way to transcend the limitations of solitary life. I found the opposite to be true. For me, a “real” trad was an excellent way to get a grounding in the basics of energy work and working in circle. It was a miserable barrier to growth in the craft.

    Over a period of years, I found myself working harder to impress leaders who really had very little of anything special to impart in teaching and who in fact actively discouraged exploration or independent learning. My true initiations came with the challenges of life events, lots of independent spellwork and the tasks the gods themselves have set before me.

    After some time as a solitary, I have come to be part of what might be called a “bootstrap” coven. What began as a wonderful working partnership between two people burned out on traditional covens has coalesced into a tradition of its own and which offers an initiatory framework but which strongly emphasizes individual growth. Our tradition derives its strength and legitimacy from the work we do with each other and the gods, and not our previous lineages or initiations. I believe there’s an awful lot of fertile ground between solitary life and BTW and similar old line trads. I also believe that most people should open themselves to the possibility of working in any or even all of these modes over the course of their journeys.

  • kenneth

    The debate is much more complex than whether initiatory Wicca “still matters.” I think it will always have a place, but the time has long since passed when it has defined the movement or most people’s experience of it, and I think we are immeasurably richer for it, even if it brought its share of problems. Some here say initiation was a way to transcend the limitations of solitary life. I found the opposite to be true. For me, a “real” trad was an excellent way to get a grounding in the basics of energy work and working in circle. It was a miserable barrier to growth in the craft.

    Over a period of years, I found myself working harder to impress leaders who really had very little of anything special to impart in teaching and who in fact actively discouraged exploration or independent learning. My true initiations came with the challenges of life events, lots of independent spellwork and the tasks the gods themselves have set before me.

    After some time as a solitary, I have come to be part of what might be called a “bootstrap” coven. What began as a wonderful working partnership between two people burned out on traditional covens has coalesced into a tradition of its own and which offers an initiatory framework but which strongly emphasizes individual growth. Our tradition derives its strength and legitimacy from the work we do with each other and the gods, and not our previous lineages or initiations. I believe there’s an awful lot of fertile ground between solitary life and BTW and similar old line trads. I also believe that most people should open themselves to the possibility of working in any or even all of these modes over the course of their journeys.

  • http://dianarajchel.com Diana Rajchel

    I’ve worked in both initiatory and solitary Wicca. What I’ve found works best for me is a magical partnership or small circle of deeply trusted people that I love ( not a coven.)

  • http://blog.dianarajchel.com Diana Rajchel

    I’ve worked in both initiatory and solitary Wicca. What I’ve found works best for me is a magical partnership or small circle of deeply trusted people that I love ( not a coven.)

  • Peter Dybing

    It is an interesting dichotomy that the question of Initiatory verses Solitary Wicca practice sets up. Discussions on this issue inevitably lead to statements from some members of initiatory traditions that they have access to “a level of growth and community that is unavailable to those who are not initiates. While it is important to highly respect these traditions for their level of knowledge, insight and contribution to the community, proclamations as to the lack of value or ability of those on other paths to develop spiritual insight and strength of practice fall short.

    Wicca is after all a belief system where each of us has direct access to the Divine. To claim that one path or the other is superior in its approach is both disingenuous and not supported by anything more than personal experience. For many, an initiatory path is deeply meaningful. For others a solitary path is equally meaningful. As a community we can choose to celebrate the diversity of belief rather than debating specific paradigms.

    Another issue is the dichotomy in general. Wicca has grown into an incredibly diverse community with dozens of forms of practice. Individuals no longer face having to choose between Solitary and Initiatory paths. Many, so called Solitaries, participate in rituals with others regularly, engage with teachers of the craft and are highly involved with the Wiccan community. These individuals represent the fastest growing segment of our community and are creating new traditions that do not follow traditional definitions.

    As our community struggles to shed it adolescence as a belief system these discussions are inevitable. In psychology there is a general concept that maturity is demonstrated by the ability to hold two seemingly contrary concepts as valid without the need for one to have dominance over the other. Consider if the below examples from nature hold true as an example of this concept?

    “In Nature when a solitary tree grows, it grows strong”

    “In the forest each young tree is given shelter and the opportunity to grow strong in the embrace of its elders.”

    If we accept these two statements and apply them to our community are we not all better off? If we also recognize and validate the growth of a new paradigm that falls between these extremes we create an even more vibrant community.

    Will we as a community go forward with the tradition of celebrating what we have in common rather than focus on our differences? Lets hope so.

  • Peter Dybing

    It is an interesting dichotomy that the question of Initiatory verses Solitary Wicca practice sets up. Discussions on this issue inevitably lead to statements from some members of initiatory traditions that they have access to “a level of growth and community that is unavailable to those who are not initiates. While it is important to highly respect these traditions for their level of knowledge, insight and contribution to the community, proclamations as to the lack of value or ability of those on other paths to develop spiritual insight and strength of practice fall short.

    Wicca is after all a belief system where each of us has direct access to the Divine. To claim that one path or the other is superior in its approach is both disingenuous and not supported by anything more than personal experience. For many, an initiatory path is deeply meaningful. For others a solitary path is equally meaningful. As a community we can choose to celebrate the diversity of belief rather than debating specific paradigms.

    Another issue is the dichotomy in general. Wicca has grown into an incredibly diverse community with dozens of forms of practice. Individuals no longer face having to choose between Solitary and Initiatory paths. Many, so called Solitaries, participate in rituals with others regularly, engage with teachers of the craft and are highly involved with the Wiccan community. These individuals represent the fastest growing segment of our community and are creating new traditions that do not follow traditional definitions.

    As our community struggles to shed it adolescence as a belief system these discussions are inevitable. In psychology there is a general concept that maturity is demonstrated by the ability to hold two seemingly contrary concepts as valid without the need for one to have dominance over the other. Consider if the below examples from nature hold true as an example of this concept?

    “In Nature when a solitary tree grows, it grows strong”

    “In the forest each young tree is given shelter and the opportunity to grow strong in the embrace of its elders.”

    If we accept these two statements and apply them to our community are we not all better off? If we also recognize and validate the growth of a new paradigm that falls between these extremes we create an even more vibrant community.

    Will we as a community go forward with the tradition of celebrating what we have in common rather than focus on our differences? Lets hope so.

  • Rua Lupa

    I really enjoyed how each individual described their paths and were open and accepting of those who took the other path. That is one of my favorite things about paganism, the openness to diversity and individual freedom. May all your paths bring great blessings.

  • Rua Lupa

    I really enjoyed how each individual described their paths and were open and accepting of those who took the other path. That is one of my favorite things about paganism, the openness to diversity and individual freedom. May all your paths bring great blessings.


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