You are here: Wild Ideas > Temple > Library >
A Flight into the Fanciful
By Frater I Nigris
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The word of Sin is Restriction.
Witches & the Western Mystery Traditions
This essay concerns Neopaganism, the Western Mystery traditions, and
witches. I make no claims regarding orthodoxy or truth here. I'm only
telling a story that I have learned which is meaningful to those as
skeptical and imaginative as myself.
There are certainly more fantastic accounts regarding these social
traditions which I enjoy, yet for me they do not hold the same level
of credibility. These tend to be more mythical and meaningful to the
subconscious mind, and are therefore of perhaps MORE value than a story
of the type you are about to read.
The Western Mystery traditions, comprised of their mystical and occult
threads, are impossible to define in any concrete fashion. Several people
have of course attempted to do this, yet in each case their bias and
short-sightedness hindered a complete description. Besides this, the
traditions themselves form a complex, arising as they do from numerous
sources, locations and time periods. To isolate one tradition within
this complex and attempt to understand its origin and character is not
only difficult, it is a mistake.
In writing about Neopaganism and witches here I therefore do you a
disservice. I can only provide a small glimpse, a micro-view of the
entirety. It is the equivalent of attempting to understand your nose.
Without some understanding of the rest of you, my attempts will be minimal
and perhaps futile. Given all of this, I will nonetheless proceed....
A Rough Historical Basis of Paganism
In the ancient world there were two major types of society: the nomadic
or wandering tribes and the stable homesteading tribes. Families tended
to hold together in clans, at times joining and separating based upon
need or individual difference, respectively.
These tribes developed their own forms of language, government, religion
and philosophy. Their lifestyle contributed greatly toward their societal
constructs. For this reason the most popular ideas and practices (those
which have been preserved in their art and tools) included such themes
as tool-making, hunting, and the Mysteries of Birth, Sex, Marriage and
The stories and mythical artwork of ancient times portray someone immersed
in a world of great powers. Sun, Moon, clouds and night often rivalled
or combined with influential plants and animals as religious foci. Some
of these became associated with individuals as symbols of personal identity
There is little known regarding the actual practices of ancient peoples.
What is commonly referred to as 'Paganism' in today's society is really
a fabrication of fantasy, dreams and theory - useful for those who wish
to create their own path, yet difficult to substantiate in anthropological
The Developing World
Out of these family clans two major societal traditions developed in
line with the types of tribes mentioned above. These were the nonmobile
communities that settled in rich, comfortable environments near sources
of water and food, and the pioneering explorers who roamed freely through
sometimes quite inhospitable regions.
Without getting into too much detail, let us say that most of the ancient
civilizations took root in what we today refer to as the 'East' or 'Middle
East'. Those in China, India and Egypt/Mesopotamia are quite possibly
the oldest large communities known.
The pioneers scattered in clans throughout the world, crossing the
ice-bridge into the North Americas, and spreading throughout Africa
and the rest of the world. Some parts of these peoples are known as
the 'Indo-Europeans', and the common heritage of both the Indus Valley
Civilization (India) and the nomads of Europe (Celts, Teutons, etc.)
is sometimes overlooked.
The religious practices were comprised of the same elements as in ancient
times with variation based on lifestyle. Those who were nomadic tended
to focus more on courage, stability and the figure of the Hero/ine.
Those who were stationary tended to focus upon bounty, life, and the
figure of the Mother or Father (depending on region and time).
Again, while more is known about these civilizations and pioneers,
ideas concerning their lifestyle is speculation and projection, assembled
from pottery, statuettes, tools, buried cities and mass graves.
A Rough Historical Overview
of the Western Mystery Traditions
With greater and greater numbers of people vying for use and control
of resources, and given the nature of humans, warring became inevitable.
Tribes focussed the advantage of group power toward their own ends,
often at the expense of individuals and/or smaller communities.
This group identity and force concretized many times in the course
of time and, in the area of Europe and the Mediterranean, reached a
peak in the form of the Roman Empire.
Founded upon pagan fertility rites and martial Mystery schools, the
Romans sought to bring unity, through force, to the decentralized tribes
of Europe, driving the last rebellious factions into the British Isles
(chiefly Ireland and Scotland) and northerly reaches (Scandanavia, Finland,
During the rule of the Romans a wave of religious fervor spread from
the Middle East. It was a martyrdom cult, given life by the Mystery
traditions of Osiris and other heroic figures, and centering on the
concepts of indwelling authority, the resistance to oppression and the
sacrifice of one's life in the cause of freedom.
When first attempts to stamp this out only inflamed its growth, the
Romans took the only reasonable action in response, adopting its mantle
and co-opting the movement through deception. This was the Roman response
to the threat of 'Christianity' and the beginning of the 'Holy Roman
Centuries rolled by, during which the social factions of the country
farmer, the warrior, the creative artisan/merchant and the lawyer, or
clerical (scribe) castes developed along an age-old system of Indo-european,
In each of these social classes there arose a different type of religious
practice, given substance by a common ancient heritage, yet formed within
the values and lifestyles of those who created them.
The clerical caste, often sharing political and social power with the
warriors, developed a form of Christianity focussed on literature and
the skills of language, sometimes becoming dogmatism.
The warrior and merchant classes pursued a mixture of the ancient Mystery
schools (which the warrior class would perpetually retain), Christian
symbology (much of which originated from within the Mystery schools
in any case), and a type of social and personal alchemy, inspired by
the work of the pyramids in Egypt and other created world-wonders of
the time. This developed into a fraternal artisan guild structure known
The peasants and farmers pursued variations of older, regional practices,
largely agricultural and fertility rites. It was the variation both
in literacy and in economic status which would stigmatize the lower
classes as 'primitive' in the eyes of 'scholars' for many years.
The Current Western Mystery Traditions
and Their Origins
Human civilization is an ever-renewing flower, a recurrently- erupting
volcano of art, politics, religion and philosophy. We might compare
the development of the human brain with the development of 'civilization'
(society). The deeper, more central and less obvious elements of the
brain are its oldest parts, and this is true also for Western society
and its religious traditions.
Today's purely Western sects include the complex which is called Christianity,
the ripe material objectivism which is called modern Science, the Masonic
tradition, and what can reasonably be called Neopaganism or Neoshamanism.
Christianity is largely the result of enforced conformity, and its
doctrines and practices, while retaining an essentially (as from the
essenes, 'those who are') valuable teaching, are now geared more toward
the simple of mind or extremely intelligent than to anyone between the
Modern Science is a renegade sect of philosophers and engineers, often
disconnected from their roots in Christian and Masonic traditions. Much
of it has become for the West what Christianity once was: an orthodoxy
of intellectual stagnation, producing specialists and elitists. They
now wield authority in the field of 'objective knowledge', supplanting
Masonic traditions are, at their worst, social indoctrination schemes
that effectively disempower the individual and diffuse rebellion. At
their best they are mechanisms of preserving important pscho-social
symbols and concepts. The form and meaning of these symbols may have
a profoundly transformative effect upon those who use them as foci of
Setting the Stage:
The Fragmentation of Paganism
It ought be said that none of the aforementioned social and religious
developments took place in a vacuum. Just as there is an incredible
mixture among economic classes by virtue of a shared society, so has
there been a weaving of religious traditions in the West.
Ancient roots of unknown form gave way, through civilization, to an
agrarian and fertility-based religious expression amidst peasantry,
the farmers in much of Europe. This was dissipated by war, plague and
the oppression of upper class fear (exemplified by the Inquisition).
Many, if not all, of the ancient rites have been forgotten or lost,
only preserved in form by a co-opting 'Christian' social tradition (e.g.
communion and the concept of the Dying Sun-King), or by those who have
seized upon times of old as some sort of 'Golden Age', free from the
pressures and trials of civilized, citified life.
Whether or not any remnants of an agrarian, fertility-religion somehow
managed to be preserved by such a non-literary, ravaged culture as was
peasant Europe, it did not likely retain the same form over hundreds
of years, especially given the pressures from the upper classes to dissolve
It has been popular to assume that if indeed this did occur, then it
would most likely have found shelter within places which withstood the
onslaught of the Romans, British and other imperialists bent on unification
With all this history behind it, and given inspiration by an orthodoxy
which berated and condemned it, when tides of political and social restriction
began to recede, it is no wonder that a renewal, a resurgence, began
to develop. Much of this rejuvenation has taken place very recently.
A New Religion:
Gerald Gardner and the Craft
Controversy has raged during the latter half of this century concernng
the origin and history of Neopaganism. The term itself derives from
a new version (neo) of the religion of the country-dweller (paganus).
It is a similar descriptor to the 'heathen' or, 'one who dwells within
the heaths', the shrubland.
Until 1951 many countries had laws against Masonry and witchcraft,
a holdover from earlier times. England was among them, and in that year
it repealed restriction of witchcraft.
In immediate response to this, a man by the name of Gerald Gardner
published several books on the subject, claiming to have had dealings
with an extant 'family tradition' of witches in England. In so doing
he revealed details of their lives and religious expression.
Much of the resultant history of Wicca, as he called it, is available
in written form by such notable authors as Margot Adler. I shall not
repeat their words here except to say that there are important relationships
between today's organized Wiccans and traditions outside the peasant
class, notably Masonry.
Terms such as 'craft', ritual forms such as 'initiations', and social
delineations like 'degrees' are indicators to me of the similarity of
origin between modern Wicca and Masonry. For this reason and because
I personally find its somtimes rigid structures distasteful, I consider
the religion of Wicca to be different than the Way of the Witch. This
is largely as a result my own experience and the prevalence of this
attitude among many of those whose vision I respect greatly.
I would distinguish between a Wiccan, who is a member of an organized
and tax-exempt tradition with many sects (such as Gardnerianism, Alexandrianism,
Faerie, etc.), and a witch, who needs no social tradition yet may or
may not engage society and group rite. A Wiccan may be a witch, but
a witch need not be a Wiccan.
My Meaning for the Term 'Witch'
'Witch' appears to derive from the root 'wicce', which means 'to bend'.
I like to play with the ambiguity of this definition. A witch bends
like a reed in the wind. She also is one who bends or shapes hir world.
Witches are healers. This varies, however, among those who engage the
healing of individuals, those who work for the healing of all, and those
who seek both, or see no essential difference between them. In this
way witches may be identified as shamans.
Here my bias begins to show...
Witches TEND to focus more heavily upon certain mythic images than
on others. Usually this is the imagery which common society has shunned/repressed.
For this reason I say that modern witches focus more on the wrathful,
repulsive, and/or aged aspects of any deities which enter hir practice:
the Crone, the Old King, the Underworld Lord, the Demon Queen.
Witches are often ecologists and may apply the principles of ecology
in their lives where they feel able. Many are engaged in political activities
designed to awaken a sensitivity to issues surrounding plant and animal,
the balance of nature, and one's place in the world. Witches are individualists.
Most are solitary workers. It is rare that I meet a witch who says she's
a member of an organized religion. Those who do often work for social
change, harmony, and a global consciousness without doctrinal or moral
sectarianism. I find that most witches are open-minded and focus on
actions rather than words and ideas, many having studied other cultures
and acquired a broad view of social issues. They are generally accepting
of all those whom they meet.
I would say one more thing about witches. They have a sense of humor.
They don't seize on details and ostracize. They don't require the seriousness
of others. They often don't take themselves too seriously, understanding
the Great Cosmic Joke in which they live.
In conclusion, I would further note there is absolutely NOTHING which
separates a witch from a Christian, a Buddhist, a Taoist, or even a
Satanist. One reason this is the case is that living a witch's life
doesn't necessarily have anything to DO with social religious tradition,
though it may include it. Another is that there is a place where all
paths converge and this 'place between' is where the witch spends the
bulk of hir time.
My definitions and descriptions are by no means the last word on the
subject of witches. I urge you to develop your own ideas if you have
not done so already. There are no false paths in the amusement park
of the imagination.
Create fabulous stories about your origin and the origin of groups
to which you belong. Witches care more about fantasy than about fact,
more about imagination than about knowledge, more about ambiguity than
I hope you will take what I've said here and chew on it, mash it up,
destroy it, then create your own stories with the combined mastications
of all the stories you have found inspiring.
There is no truth but what we discover.
Beginning Wiccan Theory
This information is gleaned from books, personal instruction with Wiccan
elders, ritual work with Wiccans, and from social interaction over a
period of 5-10 years. It is not meant to represent the opinion of anyone
but myself, makes no claim to objective truth, and is mostly a projection
of my imagination beyond the very limited philosophical framework I
found within the Wiccan and Neopagan community.
I imagine that the influence I've experienced from many Eastern traditions,
along with my limited readings in Western philosophy and occultism,
must have contributed in great part to my understanding of the following
key terms and phrases:
Merry Meet and Merry Part
At the beginning, when preparations are made and ritual space is created,
many Wiccans exchange the greeting 'Merry meet'. At the conclusion of
the rite, when the Circle has been opened, an extension of this greeting
('The Circle is open yet unbroken.... Merry meet, merry part, and MERRY
MEET AGAIN!') is sometimes used as a resolving seal upon the entire
event. It is often pleasantly echoed by joyful hugs and shared warmth.
When used in the context of a greeting outside such rites, the words
'Merry meet' or 'Merry part' are an acknowledgement of the sacred space
that we live in and the coming together and separation of each of our
individual Circles. Each seemingly separate person is a Circle or Sphere
(and Point) of consciousness. We are a sacred space-time-consciousness
and our acts are magical acts (especially those which are consciously
Through the use of these traditional greetings we invoke the balanced
centeredness of ritual and acknowledge the interpenetration, the unity,
of our life and its magick.
The Wiccan Rede:
'An it harm none, do as thou wilt'
A rede is a piece of advice or counsel, and to this extent the Rede
is used as a guideline for one's life. Each person considers it carefully
and thoughtfully before she meaningfully calls hirself Wiccan, analyzing
all of the ramifications and subtleties of the words 'harm none' and
'as thou wilt'.
The meaning of this advice is not agreed upon by the majority of Wiccans,
nor is it important that it be so, for Wicca is not a doctrinal religion.
Since most Wiccans recognize no official priests/esses there is little
to move the rede into the status of a 'law' (a required constraint).
One interprets it as one wishes and associates with others of like mind
or those whose way is acceptance.
Therefore be reminded that the following ideas are my own interpretation
and no other (along with the subsequent description of the 3-fold Law).
'An' is a contraction of 'And if'. This form allows it to be appended
to the advice one might give to another. The Rede is designed to EMPOWER
people, not disempower them. It suggests that one take a careful look
at oneself and one's actions to evaluate if any harm may be caused in
their doing, and if not, to complete them to one's satisfaction.
The Rede centers upon one's INTENT. It is not only impossible but unreasonable
to evaluate the ends of one's actions. We can never be sure that they
have come to complete fruition. All we can do is learn from the past,
be aware of the present and plan for the future.
'An it harm none' is a deceptively complex phrase. If harm included
any type of injury or damage then we would find ourselves straight-jacketed
into suicide. Life depends upon death and injury for its very existence.
We displace and destroy countless microscopic organisms with every breath
and movement. In order to feed ourselves we must kill some form of life
in order to absorb its nutrients. It is sometimes important that minor
injury take place so as to prevent an eventual calamity. Surgery and
self-defense are good examples here.
For this reason we may accept a less expansive meaning for the word
'harm'. It need only include the cause of unnecessary pain and suffering.
To interpret this further and define what is 'necessary' would be to
DISempower our fellow Wiccan, forming a doctrine that is ethically contrary
to the Rede.
Each individual discovers this line for hirself and acts accordingly.
For this reason no absolute association may ever meaningfully be applied
to 'good' and 'evil' or 'bad'. We each have our individual reactions
and evaluations of an action taken by another. If we think that another's
action will lead to harm then we may oppose it (not the person, the
action) so as not to bring about harm through our INaction.
Again, we can never know who is objectively 'correct' in any conflict.
BOTH are correct as we follow our emotions and intuitions, act with
pure intent, express our respect for another's feelings and power, and
remain aware of the present circumstance.
In social interactions only consensus (without the force of rule) conforms
to the Rede and its important protections. 'An it harm none, do as thou
wilt' is a subjective guideline, not a moral imperative. Those who would
judge us, saying that they know we are not living by it, fail to do
so themselves by disrespecting the innate divinity of our experience
The Threefold Law
As an extension of the Rede, the Threefold Law is an explanation of
a law of nature. It deals with action and how this affects the cosmos
and the apparent source of this action. As an explanation, it ought
to be tested by the skeptical and disregarded by those who feel it inaccurate.
Many continue to claim its accuracy (in whatever detailed form), so
perhaps it is not so easy to dismiss. The Law, as mentioned above, is
not a moral judgement or a social constraint. It is a principle of nature
which has been observed and described. Action (karma) produces suffering
based upon its nature and our evaluation of its result. Intent and our
view of this intent are central to this principle's function.
Our actions affect us in the following threefold manner:
- Energy goes through us as we manifest it. We suffer or benefit according
to its nature. If an energy is intended to harm another then it harms
us as we manifest it.
- Our actions affect others directly, and to the extent that we are
one with all so do we suffer again if our intent was harm.
- Our deep mind compensates us for our harmfulness and our beneficence.
If we see that we harm, we punish ourselves; if we see that we help
or heal, then we reward ourselves (more carefully and thoroughly than
This may tie in to psychological models about the 'superego' and its
prohibitive function, arising from the programming of our parents and
other influential authorities. This a very deep self-judgement process,
inspired in us by society, the compensation carried out via unconscious
processes too complex to explore here.
It ought be mentioned, however, that those who transcend or grow beyond
compartmentalizing their actions are also beyond the compensation of
this Law, especially with regard to the reactions of the deep mind or
superego. There is much speculation as to whether this growth actually
occurs, however (see Hinduism's 'moksha', liberation or Buddhism's 'nirvana'/extinction
for other explanations).
This simple phrase is a rough equivalent of the Christian 'amen' or
the native american 'ho', perhaps with subtle differences. It is sometimes
used in greeting or parting and general well-wishing. It is also used
in ritual to seal or provide support for a magical act.
At its most esoteric, 'Blessed be' is an acknowledgement of the divinity
of all present being. It is an affirmation of the rightness of all and/or
the conferment of one's blessings upon another in warmth and love.
As with most religious traditions, the esoteric concepts associated
with each of these words and phrases have not become apparent, or have
been diluted or lost by many who comprise Wicca. Social dynamics and
communication failures work to separate wisdom from compassion and ideas
from feelings, even in the best of situations.
Little regarding Wiccan philosophy has been written and much of this
is one-sided or moralistic. Perhaps this essay shall provide some of
the fuel for the debate that these issues really deserve, rather than
simply add to the endless drone of judgement and small-mindedness that
at times seems commonplace.
Wiccan Ritual Structure
Traditional Wiccan ritual derives from a very common structure. It
may be seen in many indigenous religions, is a basic formula for Vedic
rites, and can be seen as a pattern for most Western social events -
'secular' and 'religious'.
It is comprised of the following steps:
Cleaning, preparation or creation of ritual space
This varies from as little as a change in attitude or focus to an entire
process of physical and/or symbolic 'purification', designed to alert
the participants (especially their unconscious minds) to a change of
atmosphere in preparation for the rite.
In traditional Wicca this usually includes creating a 'Circle' of ritual
space (actually a sphere) and purifying the area and participants with
incense (fire and air elements) and salt water (water and earth). The
exact sequence of the Circle, censing, and aspergation may vary.
Calling of energies/entities
Though at times this calling will precede the preparations, depending
upon the custom and timing of an event, it is the equivalent of inviting
guests and/or guardians. Sometimes this is seen as a necessary precaution.
At others it is seen as an important element in and of itself.
The energies or entities vary among traditions. In Wiccan ritual it
is often the 'Guardians of the Watchtowers' or 'Quarters' and these
are summoned from the planar four directions (North, East, South and
West), usually associated with elemental energies of the world (Earth,
Air, Fire and Water).
Often also 'the god and goddess' are welcomed to the Circle, sometimes
through the personality and form of a 'Priest' and/or 'Priestess' who
may happen to be officiating. More a focus of group energies than any
social authority, the Priest/ess is said to 'channel' or 'manifest the
energies of' the god/dess during the rite.
Raising of power
This is the build-up before the climax of the social event. It is emotional
and 'psychic' in nature and in Wiccan tradition will often involve the
creation of what is called a 'Cone of Power'. This is a three-dimensional
psychic energy funnel, designed to direct those 'raised energies' toward
a group focus.
Sometimes this focus amounts to a physical change within or outside
the Circle (often delayed so as to account for the will of the gods).
Sometimes this focus is an energy or entity within or outside the Circle
that is perceived to be lacking and in need of such aid. Sometimes the
Cone is raised with the intent that those present will take what they
need of its power and that the rest may be 'grounded', directed toward
Mother Earth for Her use/healing.
The Great Work/Rite
This is the Main Event, though at times it is coincident with and may
be inclusive of the build-up. This may be the central reason for the
rite (if there is one) and, in those traditions which define it in any
way, usually involves some procurement of knowledge (science) or expression
of inspiration (art).
In Wicca, like in most tantric traditions, it either takes place physically
or symbolically. The more complex and socially controversial form of
this is the physical conjunction of the Priestess and Priest (coitus).
This is symbolically represented by the 'blessing of the cakes and wine'
(the seed of the god is symbolized by the grain of the cakes, the blood
of the goddess by the wine). This is typically done using magical implements,
often symbolized by the penetration of the dagger (or 'athame') into
the chalice (or 'cup'), a fairly heterosexual symbolism.
Once the god and goddess have conjoined within the Circle, their fruits
(the cakes and wine) are consumed by the participants. Traditionally,
and within the symbology of the rite, this is a time for social announcements
and information to be exchanged by the group. Not only does it provide
a modicum of secrecy for the Wiccan network, it also symbolizes the
real unity between the 'world beyond' the Circle and the 'ritual space'
which it contains.
Departures and resolution
Once the Main Event has taken place and some time has passed for an
appreciation of its beauty and meaning, then it is time to call the
rite to a close and return to everyday life.
In Wicca this may be very simple or complex, depending upon the group
(coven). It usually includes the 'dismissal' or 'departure' of the guests
or guardians, including the god and goddess.
It also involves 'taking down' or 'opening' the Circle; bringing down
the dividing line between the outside world and ritual space and/or
extending the Circle to include the entire universe (in form somewhat
like the ripples that a pebble makes when dropped into a pond).
Reviews, comments and questions welcome.
Invoke me under my stars.
Love is the law, love under will.
I am I!
Frater (I) Nigris (666) 333
House of Kaos
871 Ironwood Drive
San Jose, Kali Fornica,
All content copyright 1999-2006 by the
individual authors, where cited, or by
where not specifically credited.
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006