My first years as a Witch were rather solitary affairs. That period of time was followed by working with a whole bunch of Pagans and Witches, but those folks, just like me, were rather new to the Craft. We really didn’t have much in the way of mentors or teachers, and mostly had to figure things out on our own. There’s a name for what we were practicing: Bootstrap Wicca, and it provided me with a strong foundation for what would come later in my life.
I don’t think my friends and I were alone when it comes to Bootstrap Wicca (or Bootstrap Witchcraft depending on the circumstances), it’s a rather common way of starting out. Many of us first experience the the magickal world without much in the way of mortal guides and teachers. And learning on one’s own (or with a group that’s also just starting out) can be immensely rewarding. While it would have been great to work with a coven and have a teacher right off the broomstick, that didn’t happen, and what did happen ended up being a formative process on my evolution as a Witch.
Forming My Own Opinions
My experience as a Bootstrap Wiccan began as a solitary. I’ve never been one to read rituals out of a book, so my earliest rituals were made up by me on the spot. This meant I had to consciously think about what (and who) I was calling to, and then interpret those experiences on my own. Sure, Amber K, Ray Buckland, and Silver Ravenwolf were my early guides, but when ritual was over I pondered what had just happened strictly in my own head, and not through the lens of a particular author or book.
In time I learned the differences between what calling the Watchtowers and calling the “spirits of the East” felt like, and those interpretations have been with me ever since. Certainly the things we do early on (especially when we are practicing alone) are influenced by the things we read, in the United States especially many Witchcrafts are shared via books, but for me books were only a starting point. Witchcraft in all of its various forms is experiential, and the experiences were what I took with me going forward. My early rituals were mostly hot garbage, but I felt things and filed that information away for later use.
Read twenty books about Witchcraft and you’ll get twenty-one opinions on how Witchcraft should be practiced. Instead of settling into the wheelhouse of one author’s style, I adopted my own, taking a little bit from everything. Come to think of it, Witches have always used a bit of everything, so this was probably the right approach.
If there was one downside to all of this, it’s that I became kind of an opinionated asshole. I assumed what worked for me would work for everyone else, and that’s just not always the way it goes. And while forming one’s own opinions is mostly a good thing, one should always be looking to improve and expand their practice. I became a better Witch when I started listening to people who were a whole lot smarter than me.
Learning By Doing
The first public ritual I ever attended, I also lead with a friend of mine. That’s a terribly stupid way to start ritualizing in public, but I’m all about bad decisions. Looking back, everyone who attended that ritual was extremely kind to me afterwards, and it wasn’t a colossal failure. A few months later I wrote my first real group ritual, with a circle caster, a working, people calling the quarters, and invitations to the Goddess and God. This too was at a public event and with people I had never worked with before. This was so long ago that I also wrote it on notebook paper with a pen in the corner of a convention center . . . . . .We did a whole lot of rituals like that in the early days, and many more we simply made up on the spot. At the time, most books with published rituals in them were pretty awful, with extremely short and unsatisfying workings. (Really, go back and look at your Witch books from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, most of the rituals in those books were just not very good.) Instead of contemplating, worrying about, and being fearful of ritual, we just did it. Need to do a ritual for 60 people? No problem! And there was no one to ask for help or advice, on what we should and shouldn’t be doing.
I want to say that I willed myself into a competent ritualist, but that’s not really true. Instead I engaged in rituals and simply got better at doing them over time. I still put together the occasional turd sandwich, but I generally know what works and what doesn’t because I’ve tried most of it.
Magick was the same way. Sure, the books at the time offered a bit more instruction on this aspect of things, but they generally advised more tools and materials than I could possibly afford. (I spent most of a year eating ramen noodles.) So I adapted, and what I did worked. I’ve never been an especially great magician (thankfully my wife is really good at that stuff), but I figured magick out enough to make it useful. I did shit, and kept what worked, and discarded what didn’t.
Successes and Failures
One of the problems with learning by doing is that you will fail, and fail spectacularly. I presented some bad rituals, I had spells that were complete failures, and my opinions on some things were simply wrong. But one thing about failure, and why I believe bad ritual is better than no ritual at all, is that it’s the best learning experience. I have learned more by observing what doesn’t work than what does. As long as we put ourselves in a position to learn from our mistakes those mistakes become valuable.
And of course one of the great things about learning by doing is that sometimes, things actually work, and work well! Few things feel better than being successful, especially when you are successfully doing something you’ve never really tried before, and don’t really know how to do!
Many of the Best Witches I Know Pulled Themselves Up By Their Own Bootstraps
There will always be folks out there that believe initiations are the only valid way of truly entering the Craft. And while that’s true for entering certain traditions, there’s nothing stopping anyone from practicing Witchcraft or Wicca after reading a few books (or even blog posts). And many of the best Witches I’ve ever met figured out a whole mess of stuff simply by doing, mostly on there own, without much helping along the way other than books and experience.
A whole host of Witchcraft Traditions started with people picking themselves up by their bootstraps and going bravely into circle. Trust in yourself, figure out what works, and do stuff. One only becomes a better Witch by practicing Witchcraft.