Wicca Series: Is Wicca a mystery tradition or a devotional path?

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!

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

Joseph Carriker (Alexandrian tradition) responds:

Traditional Wicca certainly has elements of both. In my experience, that distinction has to be made by the individual priestess or priest of the Craft, in accordance with their experiences. This is a central element of orthopraxic practice, to my mind.

Many people are, for some reason, looking to turn the Craft into a pagan version of Christianity, complete with seminaries, churches, congregations and tithes. Such people of course mean well, but all too often such endeavors are undertaken because they want the pagan religions to be “real” religions, to stand neck and neck with the faiths they grew up with.

But doing this means inevitably stripping the Mystery out of the Craft. While mankind has always had spontaneous experiences with Mystery (meaning that ineffable, untouchable Other that can only be experienced, and never truly described), the Mystery cults of the classical world cultivated a series of techniques that opened the mind of those who took part in their praxis to those experiences. This was, of course, no guarantee that devotees would experience their Mysteries, of course, but the techniques were strong enough that a solid majority could.

Any esoteric, Mystery tradition that is turned into the kinds of faiths that are the mainstay of cultures are inevitably stripped of the elements that open its people to that Mystery. It happens constantly, in the lifetime of religions. Today’s Mystery cult is tomorrow’s state religion, stripped of its potential for ecstatic transformation in exchange for social respectability and propriety.

Today’s Craft has spent decades rehoning those techniques, and opening to old Mysteries in new ways. If approached like a Mystery tradition, we can’t help but find devotion at the center of our praxis; but if we approach it devotionally, we must never let our desire to do so consider the sacrifice of the Mystery from what we do as acceptable.

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Lady Moonshadow Xian (Ravenwood tradition) responds:

It is both and neither.  Wicca as I know it does not fit neatly into anyone’s little box.

It is a mystery tradition in that it is an initiatory path.  There are rites and rituals that only Initiates can attend or perform.  There is knowledge that only Initiates share that is held closely secret.

However this does not ban members who are not Initiates from participating in the celebrations of the cycles of the moon and seasons.  It should serve the greater community also by bringing people together.

The Initiates are clergy.  It makes no sense to have a religion of all clergy.  There will always be people in the community who wish to celebrate the cycles but not necessarily serve the community as clergy.

That said, you need no one between you and the Divine. Each of us is part of the whole and Divine in our own right.

It is devotional in that it is a way of life.  You are not a Priestess/Priest/Witch only on certain days.  It is what you are in your everyday life. It should be displayed in your actions, not by your words.  You do not need to proclaim your belief out loud on a constant basis. Live by the laws and teachings and the Divine in you will shine through.

It is not devotional in that you do not have to “devote yourself” in servitude to some aspect of Goddess, God or the Divine.  In my tradition you are part of the Divine. How can you be subservient to what you naturally are?

Some groups do “dedicate” themselves to a specific goddess or god. I believe that is very narrow and in some cases harmful. It opens the door to the “my god is better than your god” syndrome.  It is the path to hatred and violence that the monotheistic book religions are running blindly down.

If there is one goddess or god that appeals to you, that is ok.  Just do not fall into the trap of thinking that it is a one size fits all kind of thing. As long as you recognize that there are other aspects of the Divine that appeal to others and that your chosen part of the Divine may not appeal to some one else and allow for that, then you are following the teaching of the Tenet of Tolerance.

Wicca is very hard for some people to wrap their mind around, especially those that are very devoted to their monotheistic “One God, My God” attitude.  Wicca is both a mystery tradition and a devotional path.  It is monotheistic and polytheistic.

I often run into this at interfaith or public speaking events.  I will meet someone who has the view that they were taught, however they just can’t quite stretch their mind far enough to allow for a different view.  You try to explain it as best as you can.  Sometimes I know I fail and just simply confuse them.

At least we are both there and making an attempt at honest communication and most importantly exercising Tolerance.  Sometimes you have to agree to disagree.

There is no one right way. Only the way that is right for you. If you are lucky, you find a path that you can walk with like minded people who become your spiritual family.

Next question:

Who are the God and Goddess of Wicca? Are they specific Gods, or the focal point of all Gods and Goddesses?

If you’d like to weigh in just e-mail me your short response (250-500 words) before Jan 17th. 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.

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

    Phew! Finally have a chance to sit down and add my two cents!

    I think it’s both, with a leaning towards the mystery. I say this because I want it to be devotional. I want to have a close personal relationship with the God and the Goddess. I want it but I don’t have it. Is it because I’m not an initiate? Is it because they don’t work with us that way? I don’t know but I want to find out.

    I’ve written before of my relationship with the God of Witchcraft, the Horned One. I feel called by him. He speaks to me in my meditations, my dreams and in my daily life. I am closer to him than I am to the Goddess, but I can’t really say I know him. With other Gods and Goddesses I feel I can connect to some essential spark within them. Not so here. These Gods are different. There is an elusiveness to them I can’t puzzle out. I’m hoping initiation will give me some answers, and that they are answers I can share.

    Does saying that we are a mystery cult or a devotional cult change the way we practice? Not as a group, but only in personal practice. Every Wiccan Circle is both a mystery to be encountered and a devotion to our Gods. I’ve felt it in small formal trad Circles with only a handful of people, and in large informal open Circles with hundreds of people.

    In personal practice I find mysticism and devotionals go hand in hand. Where you lack one the practice of the other will lead to it. They are like the horses in the Chariot from the tarot, or the pillars of severity and mercy in the Kabbalah. While devotionals have led me to the Mysteries of some Gods, I have to trust that the Mystery will lead me to proper devotion of others.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Nicely stated, Star!

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

    Phew! Finally have a chance to sit down and add my two cents!

    I think it’s both, with a leaning towards the mystery. I say this because I want it to be devotional. I want to have a close personal relationship with the God and the Goddess. I want it but I don’t have it. Is it because I’m not an initiate? Is it because they don’t work with us that way? I don’t know but I want to find out.

    I’ve written before of my relationship with the God of Witchcraft, the Horned One. I feel called by him. He speaks to me in my meditations, my dreams and in my daily life. I am closer to him than I am to the Goddess, but I can’t really say I know him. With other Gods and Goddesses I feel I can connect to some essential spark within them. Not so here. These Gods are different. There is an elusiveness to them I can’t puzzle out. I’m hoping initiation will give me some answers, and that they are answers I can share.

    Does saying that we are a mystery cult or a devotional cult change the way we practice? Not as a group, but only in personal practice. Every Wiccan Circle is both a mystery to be encountered and a devotion to our Gods. I’ve felt it in small formal trad Circles with only a handful of people, and in large informal open Circles with hundreds of people.

    In personal practice I find mysticism and devotionals go hand in hand. Where you lack one the practice of the other will lead to it. They are like the horses in the Chariot from the tarot, or the pillars of severity and mercy in the Kabbalah. While devotionals have led me to the Mysteries of some Gods, I have to trust that the Mystery will lead me to proper devotion of others.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Nicely stated, Star!

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Nicely stated, Star!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    It is not devotional in that you do not have to “devote yourself” in servitude to some aspect of Goddess, God or the Divine. In my tradition you are part of the Divine. How can you be subservient to what you naturally are?

    I’m not sure that is what “devotional” means, and I think the entire construction here is a bit flawed.

    Gods are devoted to other gods all the time–it happens in Hinduism, certainly, and it also happens in Greek religion. Herakles, the Dioskouroi, and Asklepios all sought initiation at Eleusis, and yet they were all heroes/gods/demigods, and the initiation at Eleusis was of a devotional nature as well as a mystery…why would they need to do this? Why did Dionysos have to seek out the shrine of Rhea to be cleansed of his madness?

    Devotion and subservience are not synonymous, and even amongst equals, there can be ways in which one devotes one’s attentions particularly to one person or thing rather than another. Like marriage, for example–very few people these days think of marriage as a relationship of subservience of one partner to another, nor is this the assumption in friendship and a variety of other inter-human relationships. Why would it of necessity be the case, then, with deities, particularly when we do have divinity as humans?

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

      I think the problem with the idea of devotion in Wicca or Witchcraft is that is that it seems to negate True Will. A Witch’s Will is a powerful thing. It’s too late in the evening for me to attempt to articulate that in the context of devotional practice. I suppose no matter how devotional we are, are how much we may submit to the Gods, we are still fiercely independent with a Will of our own. We are at some level radical revolutionaries. For me, learning to balance the two extremes seems to take me to the heart of ancient Paganism: bargaining with the Gods.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Right–I subscribe to that kharis, do et des contractual understanding of devotion as well, which is entirely in line with most ancient European understandings of polytheistic devotion as well. So, why is it that too many people are getting hung up on the word “devotion” and thinking it means “submission”? The only people for whom it means “submission” are Muslims, and, not to put too fine a point on it, we’re not Muslims! ;)

        I wonder if the problem here is the same one that hero cultus and hero worship receives. To do hero cultus and hero worship is not comparable to standing in line for hours screaming about Justin Bieber…it’s something entirely different. But because the former has appropriated the language of the latter in the modern world, people get confused.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    It is not devotional in that you do not have to “devote yourself” in servitude to some aspect of Goddess, God or the Divine. In my tradition you are part of the Divine. How can you be subservient to what you naturally are?

    I’m not sure that is what “devotional” means, and I think the entire construction here is a bit flawed.

    Gods are devoted to other gods all the time–it happens in Hinduism, certainly, and it also happens in Greek religion. Herakles, the Dioskouroi, and Asklepios all sought initiation at Eleusis, and yet they were all heroes/gods/demigods, and the initiation at Eleusis was of a devotional nature as well as a mystery…why would they need to do this? Why did Dionysos have to seek out the shrine of Rhea to be cleansed of his madness?

    Devotion and subservience are not synonymous, and even amongst equals, there can be ways in which one devotes one’s attentions particularly to one person or thing rather than another. Like marriage, for example–very few people these days think of marriage as a relationship of subservience of one partner to another, nor is this the assumption in friendship and a variety of other inter-human relationships. Why would it of necessity be the case, then, with deities, particularly when we do have divinity as humans?

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

      I think the problem with the idea of devotion in Wicca or Witchcraft is that is that it seems to negate True Will. A Witch’s Will is a powerful thing. It’s too late in the evening for me to attempt to articulate that in the context of devotional practice. I suppose no matter how devotional we are, are how much we may submit to the Gods, we are still fiercely independent with a Will of our own. We are at some level radical revolutionaries. For me, learning to balance the two extremes seems to take me to the heart of ancient Paganism: bargaining with the Gods.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Right–I subscribe to that kharis, do et des contractual understanding of devotion as well, which is entirely in line with most ancient European understandings of polytheistic devotion as well. So, why is it that too many people are getting hung up on the word “devotion” and thinking it means “submission”? The only people for whom it means “submission” are Muslims, and, not to put too fine a point on it, we’re not Muslims! ;)

        I wonder if the problem here is the same one that hero cultus and hero worship receives. To do hero cultus and hero worship is not comparable to standing in line for hours screaming about Justin Bieber…it’s something entirely different. But because the former has appropriated the language of the latter in the modern world, people get confused.

  • Williamstevens743

    Type your comment here:
    I have found that poetry as being a very unique form of learning used description as in languages and that the divinities seemed to have scenes and actions put together through meaning,sound, and metaphor and it seems the leave something behind for someone to consider that makes a name for a divinity.

  • Williamstevens743

    Type your comment here:
    I have found that poetry as being a very unique form of learning used description as in languages and that the divinities seemed to have scenes and actions put together through meaning,sound, and metaphor and it seems the leave something behind for someone to consider that makes a name for a divinity.


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