Thorn Mooney is a priestess and coven leader in the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca, and she sees the preservation and advancement of the Craft as a personal calling. In fact, most of her major life choices as an adult have been with that goal in mind, including going to school to pursue the academic study of religion and then taking a job as a high school teacher so she could have summers to write and travel to Pagan festivals more freely. Thorn’s coven, Foxfire, proudly operates in the American South, a land where many are surprised to find witches (and lots of them). Thorn writes Oathbound for Patheos Pagan and also has a regular column in Witches & Pagans Magazine. Her first book, Traditional Wicca: A Seekers Guide, was released by Llewellyn in July 2018.
How did you discover Witchcraft and what drew you to it?
I am the prototypical nineties teen witch, and proud of it. I began practicing witchcraft in the about 1998 or so, after seeing The Craft at a friend’s Halloween sleepover party and then, that same night, poring over her copy of Teen Witch by Silver RavenWolf. For the next year, I had a group of girlfriends that would sneak off to the New Age section of Walden books to sit in the aisles and read Scott Cunningham and DJ Conway. We had just gotten America Online, too, so we’d stay up too late in Wiccan chat rooms or surfing GeoCities. It felt like this secret thing that made us special—something we needed to hide from our parents and other friends at school. On a visceral level, the appeal was actually much deeper than the titillation of adolescence, but I don’t think I had the words or experience at the time to articulate quite what was going on with me. It was power and excitement, but it was also belonging and purpose.
How did you get involved with Traditional Wicca as opposed to non-Traditional Wicca?
I knew very early on that that’s what I wanted, though it would be years before I would actually pursue it. There was something about those old photos of Maxine Sanders, Janet Farrar, Patricia Crowther, and other priestesses engaged in ritual. I was totally entranced, and it was very clear that they weren’t doing the same thing that I was reading about in my Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf books. As a teenager, though, it certainly wasn’t available to me, and even so all of the books I was reading said that that was how witches “used to” practice. Now we didn’t need covens! We were solitary! Eclectic! Screw hierarchy and lineage, we were free! Roar!
The Internet didn’t help matters. Whenever I ran into someone in a chat room or on LiveJournal who identified as Gardnerian or Alexandrian, they were almost without fail an asshole (sorry, friends, but for real). Wiccan communities were super divisive over the initiation issue, with both sides feeling super threatened. I really struggled with the question of my own legitimacy as a witch—as I suspect most of us do for one reason or another—and my solution was to sort of put it away for a while. I tried to read everything I could (remember, this is before Amazon), and I kept my head down and did my thing. Eventually, I hit a bit of a wall in my practice and I decided to seek out a coven to help. I circled with a Blue Star grove for several years, first locally and then long-distance, and then, after a really low point in my life that took me away from Blue Star, I decided to look for Gardnerians. I wanted the thing that I loved so much in those old photographs.
Older generations tend to view Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism as a religion, whereas younger generations tend to reject the term “religion” for their practices. Do you personally view Witchcraft, Wicca, or Paganism as your religion?
I’m afraid I’m a bit of an outlier here, because I take issue with this tendency. Actually it sort of drives me nuts, because I think it implies a really limited view of “religion.” What I’ve found is that when many people say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” what they really mean is “I grew up in a particular kind of religious household and I don’t want any part of that anymore.” Here in the United States, “religious” is almost always understood to mean “conservative” or “backwards” or “prohibitive” or some such. Tell someone you’re religious, and they automatically think you’re a prude and stop cursing in front of you (or curse more, depending on how cool they think they are). But religion is a huge, varied, gorgeous thing! To me, religion is one of the most fascinating ways in which people are creative, which is why I pursued religious studies in college and then went to graduate school. Something similar happens when people start using “secular” to define their witchcraft. I’m all for people using whatever monikers they want, but most of the time what I see are people who really mean, “I don’t worship gods.” Cool! But that’s not the defining characteristic of religion. There is no defining characteristic. Just look at traditions like Buddhism, where concepts like “god” get super murky. I spent a lot of my time in school working in Chinese religions, and you run into the same problems. Most of the people I studied thought of themselves as “secular” or “non-religious” too, but it didn’t make them any less interesting to scholars of religion (or, for that matter, similar to people who did identify as religious).
When I say that I’m religious, I feel like I’m reclaiming something. I feel like I’m forcing people to reconsider what it means to be religious, to be devout, to worship. These words are an important part of my vocabulary. I get why other people drop them, but I won’t.
Congratulations on your first book! What inspired you to write Traditional Wicca and what are your hopes for the book’s impact on readers? What do you feel it can offer those who aren’t drawn to Gardnerian or Alexandrian traditions?
Thank you! I’m still reeling.
I wrote Traditional Wicca because I was running a coven and getting to be sick of not really having anything to recommend to people asking questions about what I do. Most of the traditional Wiccans I know are still recommending books that were written twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Those books may still be worth reading, but they’re not always very reflective of what we’re doing now, and many seekers find those books very unapproachable. I wanted an honest, up to date book that I could be comfortable giving to seekers, but also the curious, and even to recent initiates. So I wrote one!
It’s not written specifically for Gardnerians and Alexandrians. I define traditional Wicca as initiatory, coven-based, lineaged, hierarchical, and experiential. Nowadays, that actually includes quite a few different kinds of Wiccan groups, including some that only a decade or so ago would have been called “eclectic.” Even if what you’re seeking doesn’t entail all five of those criteria, there’s still a lot of insight and advice on many facets of structured, group-based witchcraft traditions. There’s a whole section on finding others who are into what you’re into, and that stuff transcends any one type of Craft. I made an effort to reach out to communities outside of my own, and the contributors were pretty diverse.
I also wanted to write something in response to the everywhereness of critique against Wicca. It’s trendy to throw Wicca under the bus right now, but a lot of the nay-saying is coming from folks who don’t necessarily have much exposure to anything beyond the Wicca they find on Reddit or Instagram. I got tired of constantly being called shallow, fluffy, or toothless.
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You got Raymond Buckland’s praise and endorsement for the book before his passing. That’s quite honorific! Many were confused as your book didn’t hit shelves until after his passing. What does Raymond Buckland’s legacy mean to your work and how did you get the book into his hands?
That was all my editor’s doing! I was way too shy to reach out to Ray Buckland. Actually, I was way too shy to reach out to practically anyone. I think I asked one person directly, and I can almost guarantee I’d been drinking. I was so self-conscious. I mean, so many of us come of age in the Craft idolizing authors, and I was no exception. At fourteen, I thought of Ray Buckland the same way my friends thought about their favorite rock stars or other celebrities. I was terrified to ask Deborah Lipp, too. Good lord. I mean, what if they thought my book was garbage? These are elders in my freakin’ tradition! It wouldn’t just be devastating as an author; it would be devastating as a priestess.
Being of a younger generation of what is perceived as the Old Guard of Wicca, have you experienced any pushback from the book or your views?
No! It might be because I don’t maintain a personal Facebook page and stay off forums and lists. Maybe I just don’t hear the pushback. But overwhelmingly, I’ve felt really supported. A lot of young people have expressed relief at hearing from someone who is more like them, and my elders seem equally relieved that our traditions are being passed on to people who really care about them. I have seen a couple of negative reviews by people who very clearly haven’t actually read the book, but I don’t think there’s an author out there who doesn’t deal with that.
You’re an archer too! Archery is an overlooked aspect of goddess figures widely worshipped by witches such as Artemis, Diana, Hekate, Bendis, Skaði, Flidais, Devana, and more. Is there a relationship between your archery and your spirituality? Do they influence or impact one another or are they completely separate?
Oh, yes, absolutely, but it’s not because of a goddess! The Horned God of Wicca is also a hunter, as well as the lord of death. My archery—and my pursuit of traditional bowhunting—is a devotional practice to him. I had a very troubled relationship with men, collectively, after getting out of an abusive relationship in my twenties. A lot of people turn to our Goddess for comfort and healing—and she certainly provides that—but she’s only half the story. I needed to fix some very deep internal hang-ups in order to move forward in my Craft. The thing the Horned God and I had in common was a love for the woods and for animals, so I started there. Going deeper, I felt called to explore that connection through hunting deer. I haven’t made my own kill yet (shooting with a longbow and wooden arrows isn’t like using a rifle, or even a compound bow…our success rates are much lower, and I’m still a noob), but this had absolutely been a spiritual experience. It’s also brought me much more in tune with both the natural landscape and the culture of where I live. I’m a Southerner by transplant, and I was resistant to that. But I’ve been here almost half my life now, and it was time to start embracing this place. Hunting is a big part of rural Southern life, and it’s actually critical to this ecosystem now. I’m a lot happier, and it’s really done a lot to repair my relationship with men.
You are also a tarot reader, and I would guess from what I’ve read of your work, that it’s your preferred method of divination. What do you feel makes Tarot so insightful and powerful as a tool of divination and reflection?
The thing I love most about tarot is that it embodies so much of Western esotericism as a whole. I’m Wiccan, but I see Wicca as fundamentally a Western magical tradition with Hermetic roots, not a nature religion. That’s just me. I’m a witch, but I’m also a magician and an occultist. With tarot, I get to be all of those things and nobody thinks it’s weird. Tarot has served as a path to studying other occult disciplines that many contemporary witches ignore: Qabalah, alchemy, astrology, and others. Tarot provides a framework for so much, especially the Smith-Waite deck, which is what I read with almost exclusively. Through studying tarot, the Golden Dawn and other ceremonial traditions felt more approachable. It’s like a common tongue, uniting all of these systems that on the surface don’t always seem like they have much in common.
If you could give young seekers of any form of Witchcraft only one piece of advice, what would it be?
The best piece of advice I can give is this: figure out who you are, and practice your own Craft. So many of us are secretly worried that we’re frauds, or doing it wrong, or missing something. There’s always more to learn, but if you get caught up in getting someone’s stamp of approval, you’ll miss the point. You’ll also end up being disappointed. No one has a monopoly. No one knows what they’re doing all the time. No one tradition has the secret to fixing your life. There will always be infighting. Every group has assholes. Any coven will break your heart at some point. So learn what you can, stay focused on what matters, and just practice witchcraft.
Lastly, anything we can look forward to from you in the near future? Any new books, projects, tours, events?
I’m working on a second book! Things are still sort of in the air right now, but I’ve promised Llewellyn something this fall. I’ve also got a collection of witchy short stories I’m working on, which has been a blast because I’ve never written fiction before. In the meantime, I’m doing some travel to lead discussions and workshops. I’ll be in Seattle in September at Swordsquatch, a historical European martial arts event, talking about swords in European magic, and I’m trying to get something on the books in October out in California. I work fulltime as a classroom teacher, and I try to avoid abandoning my kiddos to substitutes for extended periods, but I’m pretty flexible.