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A Brief History of the Odyssean Tradition

Dennis L. Davis writes:

Would you and Lynna explain your differing Traditions to me and the others that might be interested?

Well, I'd been meaning to get around to it in response to Kathryn's question, but now that I have two people asking, I'd really better write something! Bear in mind, though, that this is right off the top of my head and shouldn't be taken as any sort of authoritative magnum opus on the tradition.

The Wiccan Church of Canada was founded in Toronto in 1979 by Richard and Tamarra James and their coven of the time. They wanted to start a public Wiccan organization, because they felt that the traditional coven structure made it difficult for newcomers to find their way into the Craft, and in particular for people who were still uncertain to be able to find out whether Wicca was for them without having to make a commitment that they might not be able to keep. They also were not entirely happy with the "religion of priesthood" concept and wanted to create a space where those who followed a Wiccan belief system but were not called to an initiatory path could worship the gods with others. The Initiates of the coven became, in effect, the priesthood of the church.

Now, this all sounds a little dated now, as there is currently a plethora of "you-too-can-be-a-Witch" books out there, to the extent that many people have entirely lost sight of the fact that Wicca is an initiatory religion in the first place. But at the time, this was fairly novel, at least for this area. I believe there were some people doing public Craft in the US, though.

The backgrounds that the WCC's founders came from were a mix of Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Continental and probably a few other traditions I can't think of offhand. So in terms of the spectrum you can see in Wicca today, of old-school British traditional Craft on the one end to new age California eclectic on the other, our origins were pretty strongly on the traditional end. However, the fact of doing public ritual was considered a pretty radical/flaky idea at the time, so by committing to that course of action, the WCC became somewhat distanced from other traditional Craft groups.

In addition, the fact that various members of the founding coven came from different backgrounds, and some had had experience in more than one tradition themselves, meant that the coven's practice, and hence the church's, no longer fell squarely into the category of any one tradition. And they had been adding some innovations of their own, which helped to take the group further from its mostly Gardnerian/Alexandrian roots. So little by little, the WCC developed its own distinct style of ritual and teaching -- essentially, a tradition of its own.

After the church had been running for a few years (out of Richard and Tamarra's little temple in their apartment, at the time), with people continually asking "So what tradition is this?", they decided they had better come up with a name for what they were doing before people started calling it something horrible like "Tamarrian", so after some consideration, they chose the name "Odyssean" (or Odyssian; the spelling varies), from the Greek epic of the Odyssey, in recognition of the individual spiritual journey or odyssey that we each make, which is never exactly the same for any two people.

Some of the characteristics of the Odyssean tradition are: an emphasis on public ministry; a moderately heavy emphasis on polarity in ritual (we do have single-sex rituals as well as mixed); a less consistently structured approach to ritual than the Gardnerians et al., but considerably more structure than most eclectics; a strong encouragement for people to affiliate themselves with a particular culture and pantheon of deities and to learn as much about them as possible, but also to be familiar with and respectful of other cultures' deities; a strong devotional orientation, with an emphasis on forming close bonds with patron deities and letting your devotion to them guide your spiritual development (meaning we have more emphasis on specific deities and less on the all-are-one idea than most Wiccan traditions); and a correspondingly strong emphasis on invocatory ritual (in which a priest/ess is possessed by a deity) at the non-public levels (we don't do this kind of ritual every week or anything, but we do consider this kind of work extremely important).

Over the years, the original coven fragmented into a number of smaller groups, because as the church grew and each Initiate came to have their own collection of students, they naturally tended to hive off and start their own covens or student groups. So the original coven, which had been simply called the "priesthood coven" at the time I became involved in 1981, is no more. What there are now are almost as many covens as there are initiates of the tradition. And the original Toronto temple has generated temples in Hamilton and Ottawa as well. The temples offer public ritual and classes on a weekly basis, and the covens and student groups offer further training with a private teacher.

Another thing that has changed a lot over the years is the training system. The skills that make a good traditional coven priest/ess do not necessarily prepare one adequately for serving as clergy in a public church. So over time, the training has become more and more rigorous, with the result that it takes longer and longer to get Initiated -- I've heard some people say we have about the heaviest training system of any Wiccan tradition around. Given that it can take many years to become an Initiate, and that many of our members are not called to that path anyway, we have instituted two "pre-degrees", or non-priesthood rites of passage, in addition to the traditional three degrees of initation.

The first is Dedication, which is simply a confirmation of an individual's choice to follow a Wiccan path. Dedication does not specifically commit the Dedicant to the Odyssian tradition, or to any further study, or to the pursuit of Initiation; it is simply and solely a ritual of personal spiritual commitment. Dedication can be done whenever a person feels ready; there are no offical "requirements" other than a sincere desire to worship the Old Gods.

The second is the rite of Neophyting, which does mark the student's choice to commit to serious in-depth study of the tradition, and to work toward Initation. Neophyting takes place after a student has completed the full year's cycle (actually, it's edging its way up toward two years now) of public classes, and has been studying with a private teacher for some time -- sometimes as little as a few months if the student has prior experience of some kind, but usually more like a year or two. Essentially, Neophyting marks the halfway point towards priesthood. It is also the point at which the student becomes oathbound and begins to learn the inner work of the tradition. It is done when both the student and the teacher feel the student is ready.

First Degree Initation, at which the student becomes a priest or priestess, usually takes place about two or three years after Neophyting. It must be by consent of a council made up of all of the active priesthood of the church. The student must demonstrate that he or she is competent at leading ritual, teaching, counselling, handling crises, and generally ready and willing to perform all the functions of public priesthood, and has also completed all of the magical and ritual work associated with the Neophyte level.

Elevation to the Second Degree, at which one becomes a High Priest or High Priestess, tends to take upwards of five years after Initiation (if it takes place at all -- many people do not go that far), and requires that the Initiate, among other things, to have been successfully running a coven or student group for some time and have completed the magical and ritual work associated with the First Degree. Elevation to the Third Degree, which is fairly rare, requires that the priest/ess have made a major contribution to the pagan community in some way.

Personally, I began attending the WCC's public rituals in the spring of 1981, studies briefly with a private teacher, left in 1984 to explore other traditions, came back in 1987 and began studying more intensively with a different teacher, was Neophyted in 1988, Initiated in 1990, and have now been running my own coven for several years. And if I ever manage to find the time to finish the last of the First Degree work, as my teacher has been nagging me to do for several years now, I may yet make Second sometime during this lifetime.

Writing fewer really long e-mail messages would probably help. :-)

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet)


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