Witchcraft is a practice filled with secrets. But what exactly are they? Are they forbidden rituals opening doors to storehouses of unimaginable knowledge and power? Are they arcane words and symbols that can be used to influence outcomes, bless one’s allies, or even blight one’s enemies? Are they the secrets of which herbs and plants will lull the mind to sleep, or grant visions of true love? Maybe they are the closely guarded names of ancient spirits, bound to service through occulted machinations stretching back through a lineage of practitioners, each of whom have been entrusted with this knowledge under pain of oath? What spells and barbarous words have been painstakingly kept from public view, lest their power become diluted, corrupted, or abused? Perhaps this knowledge is best kept out of the hands of those who would seek such power for themselves and kept only by those who can fully understand their context and treat them as sacred. The witch knows how to keep silent, passing secrets down only to others of their kind, in lineages and witch-families since the beginning of time.
Or so the story sometimes goes.
In other stories the witch is the ultimate revealer of secrets. If you think about it, most of a witch’s job is discovering nature’s secrets for themselves… working to understand the hidden mechanisms behind what we think of as reality. It is looking beyond what we can see and touch and delving deep into the inner workings and relationships between things in order to better understand how they work together. And with that understanding, comes the faint possibility of being able to influence those connections in order to bring about a desired result.
Modern religious Witchcraft is sometimes described as a “mystery tradition”. It is not uncommon for some members to patrol the edges of their systems, guarding the secrets that lie therein. They might even use deliberate misdirection and outright false information to discourage non-members from learning too much too soon. Here we might begin to see the all-too-common conflation between mystery and secrecy; the former being the indescribable experiential core of a path, while the latter covers material specific to the particular ritual, group, coven, lineage, or tradition. Secrets must be guarded. Mysteries take care of themselves.
But why do we even keep secrets? What purpose does it serve? Before I was initiated, I might have thought that certain secrets were kept in order to prevent the ignorant from causing harm, and indeed this reason is often cited in defense of ritual secrecy. Sort of like the occult equivalent of guarding the nuclear codes, many groups profess possession of knowledge so dangerous that it threatens the very safety of the world. Or at least one’s own health and sanity.
Another reason often cited for the practice of ritual secrecy is that it helps to maintain and deepen a relationship with the groups’ egregore or “group mind” in a way that is both personal and profound. Here is where we begin to see the practice of secrecy being used as a magical device. When practiced in this way, secrecy can be a tool that creates a sense of intimacy and this helps to create a sense of energetic connection that is vital to the continued magical development of a group and its members. This might include specific symbols or ritual steps needed in order to make contact with a particular spirit or to grant access to a specific astral temple.
Secrecy can also be a tool that helps certain teachings “carry more weight”. When a secret is revealed in the context of a ritual, the revelation can be deeply moving in a way that simply conveying it as pure information might not be. The element of surprise is often utilized in occult ritual for this purpose, as it helps to further internalize the symbol or teaching.
With several years’ experience as an initiated member of a witchcraft tradition that practices ritual secrecy, I can say with confidence that secrecy in the Craft works best, in my opinion, as a personal devotion. Instead of actively trying to prevent others from learning our secrets, I simply choose to keep certain things private as part of my internal practice. I keep them secret –not necessarily to keep them away from anyone—but to keep them inside myself as a special, cherished thing. This empowers my relationship to the material and in turn makes it even more powerful for me. That power is not diminished if someone learns the secret, but neither does that release me from my practice with it. There are things that I have pledged to keep secret that are already “out there” in the public eye. But even when something that I keep secret becomes known to others I don’t suddenly give up on my internal practice. Secrecy becomes less about trying to keep others OUT… and more about trying to keep the message IN. When we restructure our relationship to secrecy in this way, I feel that we make a huge leap forward in terms of our overall mental and magical health. Whatever we decide, once we are clear about why we are keeping certain things secret, then we will have a healthier relationship to those secrets, our traditions, the mysteries, and each other.