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Conservation and Innovation in Wicca

Chris Travers writes:

Wicca, basically, is an innovative tradition. It has not held to the same intense ritual structures, poetic techniques, etc. for very long because it was formed in an innovative culture which did not really respect conservative traditions, even though many people today seem to pretend as if it were.
To an extent this may be true, but it is also true that the degree of innovation vs. conservatism varies considerably between different Wiccan traditions. Gardnerians and Alexandrians, for example, tend to be highly conservative, whereas eclectic Wiccans are obviously highly innovative. Other traditions will situate themselves at various points along the continuum in between. Many people are very adamant that there are limits to the degree of innovation that is necessary or desirable; I recently heard one member of my own tradition say that he considers the term "eclectic Wicca" in itself to be an oxymoron.

Probably one of the key paradoxes about Wicca is that it was created by using innovative methods in an effort to construct/reconstruct a conservative tradition. The impulse that gave rise to Wicca was not overly different from that which gave rise to the CR [Celtic Reconstructionist] movement, but it happened during a different time period and in a different social setting, when the information available to its founders was not as historically accurate as that which is available to us now (or at least, not as accurate as we think the information available to us now is; the Victorian scholars we look down on now undoubtedly regarded their information as unfailingly accurate as well at the time).

Additionally, they were influenced by the thinking then current in occult circles -- that the practices of ceremonial magick, rather than being a hybrid of 19th century origin, were the the surviving secret teachings of ancient mystery schools throughout the western world. CM [ceremonial magick] was (and is, for that matter) often referred to by its adherents simply as "western magic" or "the western mystery tradition", and particularly in the early half of the twentieth century, this definition was accepted uncritically by most of its followers. So, to the founders of modern Wicca, it would not have appeared that they were mixing unrelated traditions, but rather that they were reconstructing what "the Old Religion" would undoubtedly have looked like. If you hold the belief that a certain set of magical practices were at one point universal, then using them to flesh out scraps of folk tradition seems perfectly logical.

Now, obviously, we now know this belief was a myth, or at least, that it is unprovable, absence of evidence not being equivalent to evidence of absence. We can identify the sources of many elements of ceremonialist tradition, including those that became absorbed into Wicca. But we should not make the mistake of imposing our modern mindset, beliefs and academic resources on a different time and place. Yes, we can critique the mistaken beliefs and assumptions behind the blending of CM and folk magic that gave rise to Wicca, but we should realize that the intent and awareness behind that blending was not, then, what it would be if someone were to attempt a similar blending now.

So, Wicca was formed using innovative methods to further a conservative intent, and without the realization that the methods were as innovative as they were. Accordingly, most early Wiccans, even those who, like Doreen Valiente, knew that Gardner had extensively fleshed out the material he claimed to have received from the coven that initiated him, using CM teachings, believed themselves to be following an essentially conservative tradition. And thus, Wicca was, by and large, highly conservative in practice for about the first 30 to 40 years of its existence. Eclectic Wicca didn't really start to appear until the 1970s, and most traditionally trained Wiccans regarded it as an abomination and a perversion of what Wicca really was. Many, for that matter, still regard it essentially that way. Most had, and have, no objection to the idea of a bunch of American hippies deciding to create their own, extremely eclectic, "anything goes" form of paganism, but just couldn't understand why they had to insist on calling it Wicca when it was so obviously not what Wicca traditionally had been.

Currently, there exists a division between traditionalists who insist that Wicca, essentially, is still what it oriignally was, and that people who want to deviate severely from that should find another name for what they're doing; eclectics who insist that Wicca is the name for anything-goes paganism and that anyone who says otherwise is oppressing them; and others, of either camp or neither, who are aware that Wiccan traditionally was quite unlike much of what is being passed of in its name today, but that in an anthropological sense the term "Wicca" has come to encompass much more than it once did, simply because so many people are using it to describe what they do and there's really no practical way of reasserting the traditional definition. So, depending on which faction you agree with, Wicca is either conservative, innovative, or both.

Wicca is probably as good a religion for today as any, assuming that the individual does not need much of a long traditional grounding.
That's one way to look at it, but that depends on how you are defining that grounding. Many people on this list have moved from Wicca to CR because they sought more of a grounding in an older tradition, but conversely I have known of people who made the opposite move for identical reasons! While Celtic culture has obviously been existence for an extremely long time, Celtic pagan reconstructionism, as such, hasn't - it's much younger than Wicca is, and has yet to really develop a cohesive, fully functional, magical/ritual system. That's by no means a put-down of CR; the work of developing that system is ongoing, and it is, IMHO, a very vital project. But I have known CRs who were moved to explore Wicca (the traditionalist variety, not the eclectic), or CM for that matter, because they felt a need for grounding in an existing magical tradition. And of course, there are many of us, regardless of which side we've come from, who find that our paths involve aspects of both.
What we have are a number of deep conflicts over paradigms, so argument is inevitable. I do ask that people bear in mind the roots of the conflict and don't condemn a tradition for being what we are not. Such condemnation has historically lead to trouble, like the Crusades and the Inquisition (persecuting Christian heretics, like the Cathars). As an ancient Hebrew source wrote, "That is vanity."
Well said. Thank you.

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet


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