Learning Wicca

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I get questions like Anne’s a few times a year and I should do a better job of answering them. In comments to a recent post, Anne wrote:

Hello Hecate. This is “off thread” , I hope you don’t mind. I’m a new Witch and I am trying very hard to practice my craft and learn as much as I can. I read Starhawk and Pagan Square but am now at a bit of a loss about how I can move forward and develop my skills and knowledge. Did you have a teacher? How did you find your coven? Did you have to try many times before you could find women who you could trust and felt a connection with so that you could do magic together? Your blog is a source of good sense and education for me, you are a wise woman and I trust your judgement, so I hope you don’t mind being bombarded with my questions. Many thanks.

If you contact your local Episcopal church and say that you’ve recently converted to Christianity and would like to explore Episcopalianism more deeply, they’ll have a class that runs several times a year for converts and it will cover the basics and culminate in a ritual that makes you a part of the church. And then, in addition to the weekly services, there will be Bible study meetings, prayer groups, classes studying various aspects of the religion (I once took a lovely class on Celtic Christianity from a local church), book lists, prayer coaches, etc. Most organized religions are similar.

Paganism is less organized. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It allows greater freedom and more of an opportunity to follow your own path, but it can also leave you wondering if you’re doing it “right” and what you’re “supposed to do” next.

Anne asks about my path and I have to say that I discovered Wicca/Paganism pre-internet. And things were very, very different back them. I lived in a conservative, rural area where I was a single-mother schoolteacher and I was concerned about even the act of taking certain books out of the public library. So I’ll recount my path, but I think that my path may have limited utility in today’s world of internet resources and greater openness about Paganism.

On one of my semi-annual book-buying trips to Washington, D.C., I chanced, by accident (pace, Dr. Jung), to buy The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. I still think it’s a fantastic place to start and a good resource for new Witches. It formed the basis of my religion and has stood me in good stead for several decades. Then, I went through the bibliography and made lists of books that I thought would be safe to ask for at the library (interlibrary loan, 90% of them, so again, I was careful) and those that I’d look for when I was in the city. Each book that I read caused me to add more books to my list. I spent a little over a decade just reading.

At some point, I found a few magazines such as (and the titles may have been different back then) Sage Woman, Lady Unique Inclination of the Night, Witches and Pagans (for which, full disclosure, I now write), etc. I read those magazines from cover-to-cover, even the ads and the classifieds. I found Starhawk’s books and read all of them, not just the Spiral Dance. I think Starhawk still offers the best basis for Wicca and I’ve loaned my multiple, multi-annotated copies more times than I could count. I recently steered a friend who’d discovered that he was a Druid to Emma Restall Orr‘s books and he found those useful.

I read pretty much anything that I could put my hands on, from silly Lewellyn stuff, to Mary Daly, to some new age Goddessy stuff, to Jean Shindona Bolen, to James Mellart, to Riane Eisler, to the Mists of Avalon series, to . . . . Well, I’m still reading today, pretty much anything that I can find. I’ve long had a notion, and I use it today in legal research, that the best thing to do is to just start reading everything and see where matters go. Some stuff was above me and I ignored it, and some stuff was just bunk and I rejected it, and some stuff was amazing and I adopted it.

I kept reading in those books about Pagan festivals and I kept thinking about going. In the end, my responsibilities (single-parent, working several jobs, no money to spare, etc.) kept me from doing so and I’m now glad. I don’t think that Pagan festival culture is for me (which isn’t to say that it isn’t great for some) and I think it would have turned me off at the time. I did go to a few Pagan “coffee house” events, and they intrigued me, but I lived too far away to get involved.

And, so I practiced as a solitary for many years. The woods were my church, my catechism, my congregation. I didn’t really have any money to buy much “stuff” so, other than a Rider-Waite Tarot deck, a makeshift goblet and athame, and some candles from the grocery store, I didn’t have any tools and I had nowhere to set up a permanent altar.

Once Son grew up and moved away and I graduated from law school, I moved to Washington, D.C. and started a new career. For a few years, I didn’t do much of anything at all except work, basically 24/7, and try to learn my new trade. I remember a few “skyclad” rituals in my giant apartment building, high above the ground. They helped me to get through.

Eventually, I reached a point where I could begin to think about looking for a group of Witches. I was still quite concerned about staying in the closet at work — not many Fortune 500 companies were hiring Wiccans to represent them, certainly back then, and, truly, even now. (Lawyers take an oath to zealously represent their clients’ interests, and I still, today, don’t think that I can do that if a judge looks at me and sees either a New-Age-nut or an evil woman, out to destroy the souls of the faithful. Sadly, that’s still how we’re perceived.) But in the meantime, Al Gore had invented the internet and I began to search, cautiously, under an internet alias, joining a few listserves and watching for a chance. One of those listserves eventually listed an invitation to check out a circle of women in Washington, D.C. and something just told me that it was right.

I was really, really lucky because that first group turned out to be a wonderful, amazing, unbelievable group of women and I practiced with them for almost a decade. I learned from them more about Wicca, and doing magic, and how to practice with a group than I could ever describe. Several of the women from that group are still my dearest friends and their work has a huge influence on mine. Since then, I’ve worked with a growing and evolving circle of women. I love this work and I’d be very sad if I ever had to go back to purely solitary practice. I spent this afternoon with the amazing magical women of my circle and I am who I am because of them and because of the work that we do together.

All of that said, I’d caution Anne and anyone else who’s asking that there are, sadly, a lot of nutjobs and severely damaged individuals in Paganism. Most Witches are wonderful people, really, they are. They’ll connect with you in a heartbeat and you’ll walk on air, feeling that you’ve finally found your “tribe.” But, and I’ve learned this the hard way, it can often take only one seriously damaged member to blow up an entire circle. It takes only one “teacher” with unaddressed shadow issues of her own to turn dozens of students away. It takes only some vague rules about who’s a member to allow a predator into a circle.

My advice is to check out every group that you can find in your area. Witchvox is still a great resource and Medusa Coils is, IMHO, even better. Keep going, keep experimenting, and keep a skeptical eye. When you meet someone who’s “real,” spend time with them, see if they belong to a group that’s open to new members, and learn whatever you can from them. If push gets down to shove, form your own “study group” or “book club,” but be careful whom you admit. Most of us want to help others, but we’re not trained psychologists, social workers, or financial counselors — as I’ve learned from the trained psychologists, social workers, or financial counselors that I’ve met. Be wary of any “teachers” who want sex, or too much money, or your undying allegiance.

I’ll add one other point in response to Anne’s question about finding a group with whom I felt comfortable doing magic. IMHO — and there are certainly Witches and Pagans whose experience is completely different — a small group of committed Witches is better than a larger group of constantly shifting members. The great flaw in modern Pagan practice — again, IMHO — is that most of us are overcommitted. A circle that never gets all of its members together because too many people have other commitments is not a really effective circle. We all have jobs, and family commitments, and homes to run, and lives with other friends, and commitments to physical activity, and classes to take, and art to create and see, and gardens to tend, and . . . . There are public rituals for folks who want to just drop in when it’s convenient. They’re like the Christians who may show up for church a few times a year, when a Sunday without other commitments shows up. But a circle of Witches doing serious magic requires a lot more — more like the core group of the church choir that shows up on Wednesday to practice, that practices drills at home every day, and that shows up all together so that there’s not a missing soprano or alto every Sunday to make the magic happen. I need to know the women I’m working with, to understand their energy signatures, and to develop a place with them on the astral plane if I’m going to do really effective magic with them. And “really effective magic” is the kind that I want to do.

Finally, I’ll say this.

No one else can teach you how to have a relationship with your own landbase, with your own watershed, with your own bit of earth. You just have to ground, center, go out and do it. Go out and sit, even if — especially if — it’s with your own bit of roadside earth, with your own bit of weeds and grasses and seeds growing against all odds in the islands between intersections, or with the bare space on your apartment pots. If you’ll honestly and willingly do that, for even two or three turns of the Wheel of the Year, you’ll be the Witch of your place and you’ll understand what you need to practice. Go be the Witch of Your Own Place. No books or groups will do that for you, but the feel of the dirt will do it.

Readers, what resources can your recommend to Anne? What has helped you to deepen your practice? How did you find a good group?

hat tip: Here.

PS: Such a great discussion! Zann, thanks for your kind words; I think maybe this (or the other post linked in it) might be what you’re looking for. http://hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com/search?q=traffic+strip

15 responses to “Learning Wicca

  1. I have almost always practiced alone, save for when I first discovered Wicca and I did rituals with a friend or two. We always wondered if we were ‘doing it right’ and a few times I went to open circle meetings that I found on Witchvox, but really, I didn’t click with those people. Right now, for me, the most important thing for me is to be the Witch of My Place. I spend a lot of time studying the land around me. I read history, biology, and nature- of my landbase. I don’t really have resources or advice to give, but I would say every Witch needs to decide what kind of Witch she wants to be and then study the whole subject both magick and mundane. If she wants to be a kitchen Witch she needs cookbooks, a herbalist needs a garden, a Witch who works with stones needs a rock collection. I do read a lot, but I have found the doing is more important. And then making my own notes so I’ll know what to repeat.

  2. I’d suggest finding a Unitarian Universalist church…many of them have strong womens spirituality groups, and many have Pagan groups too. At the very least you’d find a liberal accepting bunch of folk. And read all of those books…especially Starhawk…that Hecatedemeter has read!

  3. And spend time out in your land, listening to it, loving it…know that an altar can be as simple as a feather, a stone, a seashell, a smudge stick. And ritual doesn’t need to be fancy…If you open to listening to your ‘earth’…you will hear what you need to do, how to be..

  4. Reblogged this on musings of a kitchen witch and commented:
    I love, love, LOVE this…

    • I started out in Wicca, even though I didn’t stay there. I started with Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler in middle school after reading about a character that was Wiccan in novel (I think it was Mercedes Lackey) and then (using the books and authors she mentioned) moved on to Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Those were the only specifically Pagan books in the public library in the early days of the internet…so I read a lot of mythology and psychology and biology and history and wee bit of occult stuff I could find there. I saved my baby sitting pennies to buy Buckland’s Big Blue Book, because it was the only thing the bookstore at the mall had.

      Since then, I’ve become more eclectic and more pragmatic…one of my favorite books is Emma Restall Orr’s Ritual. I’m also a bit fond of The Body Sacred by Diane Sylvan and John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods. Just about anything by Joseph Campbell… Really though, this: ” best thing to do is to just start reading everything and see where matters go” is totally an idea that I get behind.

      After reading, comes observation, and the the thinking and the talking (to others, to the gods, to yourself), and the practicing and the evaluation–what worked, what didn’t, how can it be changed, how can it be better? If someone isn’t sure about their local Pagan scene, or aren’t sure where to find it, online communities can actually be a really good place to start, if you find the right fit (and pretty bad, if you don’t). If you go that route, browse the forum for a while, see if the conversations and personalities are ones that work for you. Some forums can be too “fluffy”, others too abrasive, etc.

      Really, where you go, I think depends on what you are hoping to get… IMO, being a witch starts at home–in your yard, in your bioregion, getting to know your spirit of place. Finding the right group is wonderful…but no group is better than the wrong group, and I really think there is something to be said for knowing yourself before jumping in with someone else. Its sort of like my mom’s advice on moving out and living on my own before I thought about living with a boyfriend…

  5. Yoga, candle magic and reading tarot cards helped me to find my meandering path.

  6. I am a Goddess-worshipper and an eclectic solitary witch. I had my first psychic experience at the age of 4 and knew even then that I could talk to no one about it. I grew up Christian, but always had the feeling that if I looked at the world in the right way, I would see that world that I knew existed parallel to this one. At the age of 22, my psychic “voice” (I’m clairaudient) said: “Witchcraft has gotten a lot of bad press”. I agreed and forgot about it. A few days later, the “voice” again said “Witchcraft has gotten a lot of bad press”. This time I went to the library at the community college where I was studying and found Doreen Valiente’s “An ABC of Witchcraft”. I felt like I had come home. I couldn’t believe there were so many people in the world who believed as I did. In those days you had to be very far into the broom closet (as I still am–my new husband’s family simply wouldn’t understand). But I will say that learning Who had been calling me all of my life has brought more joy and comfort to me than any other thing in this world. I agree with HecateDemeter that you have to be careful with whom you associate. All religions have their crackpots and Paganism is no exception. Just take it slow; look for and reflect the beauty and positive energy that is all around you, and repeat the words of Sybil Leek who said: “I am ever gladdened by my knowledge of Thee”. Oh–and read the books HecateDemeter suggested!

  7. I am very solitary in practice, never found myself drawn to Wicca of any sort. I came to paganism at the initiation of my God…the Welsh Gwynn ap Nudd, who likes to envision for me as the antler’d Herne. I studied every text I could find on shamanism, since my introduction fit the descriptions of ordeal. I did find great solace and recognition much later in Thorn Coyle’s “Evolutionary Witchcraft”. I studied more mythology and philosophy than books on the bookstore “metaphysics/new age” shelf, to be honest. I find my best footing in nature….and in quieting my own need to be explaining it to myself.

  8. Wow! Thank you for this post (and thank you, Anne, for asking the questions). I’m pretty new myself and I appreciate you sharing your personal journey, Hecate.

  9. I love this post. I am pretty much an eclectic solitary with a lot of books. I second the idea of checking out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I became a UU 20 years ago primarily because of a wonderful women’s spirituality group that met before services on Sunday mornings. We worked with the book The Chalice and the Blade as well as a UU curriculum Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. And we held monthly Full Moon rituals that were very nourishing for my spirit. The group dissolved in a natural way as women moved away. I learned a great deal from it. Last year we started a chapter of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) and, though I am still pretty solitary, it’s a nice fellowship/sisterhood to have.

    That said – Hecate, I came to the blog to see if I could find a wonderful piece you wrote some time ago, on the old Blogger. I will try to search for it, but I thought I’d ask in case you might be able to direct me to it. It was about working with one’s landbase, even if you only have access to a small bit of earth – like in a median strip. It was inspiring and poetic, about the richness of life that can be found even in the smallest, least regarded spots of Mother Earth. Do you recall that piece?

  10. I think I found it, though it’s not exactly as I was thinking….

    http://hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com/2011/05/energy-follows-attention.html

    If you know of something else it might be, let me know. I do think that post was what I was remembering.

  11. Beautiful, as always. I answer these sorts of questions, too. Mother Grove tries to do some RE, but it’s tricky. People say they want to learn more and yet when a class is scheduled, they always seem to have better things to do. :>)

  12. Pingback: Learning Wicca « WiccanWeb

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