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