Devolving and Evolving Culture

Slice of a spiral nautilus shell.

Photo by Printexstar via Pexels

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Witchcraft has a culture. In fact, these days Witchcraft is many cultures in a process of either trying to convince themselves they are all the same or desperately differentiate themselves from each other. But neither perspective is quite true. Like many things in nature, Witchcraft builds up form and structure and separation only to decompose, mix, mingle, and create fertile grounds for new things to grow. Some things last like an annual. Others are perennials. Some are bushes and others long-lived trees. This is the nature of things.

Once upon a time when I began on the path, there was a clear culture of occultism in Witchcraft, and it was just learning to come out of the shadows more. My first mentor had her altar in a sliding door closet away from prying eyes of visitors and family. Though I had known her since I was 7, she didn’t reveal she was a Witch to me until I was a legal adult at 18. She felt there was danger in exposure, that in the eyes of the community, she could be seen as corrupting minors. There were few Witch families, and those that existed were pretty discreet about it unless living in Salem, MA. Most of us today have a level of default freedom that her generation didn’t have, as she still has her altar in the closet. She existed in a network of Witches, mostly through local shops and psychic fairs, and if you were a guest at someone’s circle—which was fairly frequent as that was the main way to participate in community—there would be variations of traditions and regions, but there was a baseline of culture that meant you knew what to expect, how to behave, and what to do. I stood on the threshold of that culture as something new began to rise. I saw it gathered at my earliest festivals and events. Though they certainly had their problems and conflicts too, being such a small subculture created a camaraderie that is often lacking now

With new freedom to be public, many of the traditions were loosened and those who didn’t learn in such environments didn’t have that culture to pass on, or broke from it purposely. As people sought to be welcoming, accommodating, and freeing, many of the containers of said traditions dissolved. Roles and structure became fluid. The casualness of all things has led to many traditions falling out of fashion. Yet new traditions didn’t become cohesive or broadly catch on beyond the structure of little structure.

As things blur, the philosophies and theologies become less understood. Core concepts are muddled. Other things rise and replace. The break with past orthodoxies from your birth religion that occurs when entering into Witchcraft is often lost, sometimes resulting in the worst elements of your birth religion getting incorporated into your Witchcraft worldview, and those common points of your birth religion to the Perennial Tradition, common with Witchcraft, are misunderstood or ignored.

Previously you had to really examine how this new system was different from your old beliefs. Do I have to let go of any old beliefs to truly practice this? Am I unconsciously carrying any guilt and fears into my Witchcraft? Without cohesion, many practices continued without the participants understanding any deeper meaning than simply feeling good about participating, which I think is a great first step, but not the only step.

Identity and belonging become more paramount than tradition, so aesthetic becomes more dominant than practice, experience, and understanding. Sharing art and fashion becomes identity. Theology grows from “I am a Witch so anything I believe is Witchcraft” rather than deeply learning the past of the Craft and letting the new ideas flow with the past currents. In certain circles, this opinion of belief carries as much weight as the educated opinion. While sometimes it can provide innovation, this is one way expertise is lost. New ideas regenerate the old, but sometimes a Witch carries things that are not Witchcraft, usually unconsciously and without examined context. Those that follow incorporate these biases into their vision of the Craft.

Specific aesthetic identities grow that have less to really do with the Craft other than being a comfortable way to express oneself and often limit learning: Crystal Witch, Cosmic Witch, Shadow Witch, Faery Witch, Cottage Witch, Divination Witch, Thunder Witch, Fire Witch. None alone are inherently a problem and can have historic roots, but often set up the idea of specialization before you have even tested the waters of everything else based on preference, ease, and a desire to belong to something specific. Witchcraft ideally challenges you to grow. Imagine an Easter Christian, Apartment Christian, Graveyard Christian, or Rosary Christian. Some exist. One would think most of these missed the larger points of Christ’s teachings, for like Witchcraft, Christianity is in the living of it. There is nothing wrong with a Christian who loves the rosary, but it should lead to a deeper relationship with the Christ principle.

I suggested a plant medicine to a self-identified “Stone Witch” asking for help and was told she couldn’t use that because she was a Stone Witch. I asked her how she knew that, if she had ever tried any magick with plants before, and she told me she just likes crystals, so she was a Stone Witch. It was obvious. She had the attitude that I was somehow the crazy one for suggesting plants again after being told she was a Stone Witch. Plants would obviously not work for her. She is a Stone Witch.

When the foundational ideas are not cohesive, serious people will start to assume none of this works and often leave modern Witchcraft and Wicca to seek magickal groups and communities with much more stringent traditions because they are more cohesive and are held in better community containers. We once were too, but in the encouragement of allowance and welcoming, many have lost a lot of our ways—the very things that make us cohesive—without deeper reflection. This has led to the thinking that nothing matters in Wicca and Witchcraft, and anything is Witchcraft if you call it as such. Yet some groups are the trees deeply rooted and reaching higher.

Reconstructionism and Hard Polytheism seek cultural roots and ancestral connection, but for many of us, they don’t reflect the reality we live in, or at least the reality I live in coming from a more cosmopolitan worldview and being of mixed genetic lineage in a mixed country. I am an occultist at heart. My reconstructionism would be the Library of Alexandria. But the requirements for culturally appropriate offerings, dress, and even language to express the culture in these traditions are deeply respected. I really love participating as a guest, even though it’s not my practice or paradigm. The rituals are beautiful and meaningful, even if they mean something slightly different to me.

Occultism played a role in the regeneration of all Pagan traditions. Some consider philosopher Giordano Bruno the first true Neopagan. The Romantic Era poets certainly contributed to the renewed interest artistically, but so did the revived traditions of the Hermetic occultists, Neoplatonic philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, Spiritualists, and Theosophists. While there is a growing movement to replace occultism and magick or even theism in Paganism, to me that is ridiculous, for a magickal worldview is at the heart of these traditions and kept alive until now through occultism and grimoires, even with their Christian overlays. Christian folk traditions kept Pagan traditions alive in our consciousness to be reclaimed with an emphasis on the old gods. Like Hard Polytheism, folk traditions can be pretty strict in their customs.

Others seek African Traditional Religions, indigenous traditions, and folk magick traditions for their deep roots, long lineages and histories, and a sense of identity and cohesion with deep folklore and cohesive mythologies. They too command a different level of respect. When the Hoodoo teacher says go to the crossroads at midnight with dimes, you go to the crossroads at midnight with dimes, not to the crossroads at 8 pm because you have to work early the next day or bring pennies because you couldn’t get any dimes. Some things can and have been adapted, but the crucial factor in deciding to do so shouldn’t be whether or not you want to expend the effort. I know when I’m a guest at a Voodou ceremony and I am told to wear all white and a head cover, I do, much like in the days of the Witch’s circle when you were required to wear all black and wouldn’t be admitted if you did not adhere to it. If I’m asked to bring rum I bring rum, not vodka or soda or grape juice. A new initiate in African Traditional Religions takes quite seriously the new initiates’ requirement to wear only white and their sacred jewelry for three months and withdraw from any obligation one cannot get excused from to complete the initiatory work, while I know many Witches who forego their pentacle in public places for fear of upsetting others or having to have an awkward conversation. I’ve had students working both in Witchcraft and African traditions simultaneously forgo their Witchcraft education obligations in favor of their African because they feel they are nonnegotiable while it didn’t matter for their Craft.

These traditions have been held in more defined ways, but also face some of the same dangers as occult Witchcraft does in the age of social media. I spoke to a Voodoo priestess getting critiqued on TikTok, being scolded with the exact opposite definitions of Hoodoo and Voodou by people younger than the number of years she has been practicing, citing an internet meme as the source, rather than listening to someone’s lived experience serving the community. Thankfully many traditional religions are passed in cohesive and dynamic communities meeting face to face. This is diminishing in Witchcraft as the number of seekers who have never gone to a formal in-person gathering outstrips those who do.

I am a big believer in experimentation and a big believer in innovation and evolution, but I also believe in learning the “rules” or patterns before breaking them and then breaking them with purpose and intention.

I love the art, aesthetic, and culture of Witchcraft in so many forms, and want to see it develop and evolve. There is so much self-expression, creativity, and a mixture of what has been established in occultism with our own unique interest and background, but I also want to see it evolve with depth, heart, and meaning, rather than randomness.

I teach many things I no longer do personally, not because they are wrong, but because my practice has gone in a different direction. They still provide a solid foundation, and I teach them to students to gain that same basic foundation. Some consider them archaic and perhaps they are, but no more archaic than a musician learning all of the scales and chords, not just the easy ones.

Here are some traditions and ideas I think have value and have been lost to casualness and accommodation:

  • Wearing Ritual Attire, robes, cloaks, or all black when attending a formal rite. It lends to trance induction and group consciousness, as well as a link to our ancestral past. At my first esbat, I was loaned a “guest robe” and it was very magickal despite the initial strangeness.
  • Respect to the host or hosting group, particularly if it’s a private event rather than a paid public event. Ask if food can be brought, bring a simple gift of respect (wine, flowers, incense), and ask what you can do to help prepare or clean up afterwards.
  • If medically possible for you, fasting and refraining from salt on Sabbat days until the feast after.
  • Rituals at specific times and days to reflect the astrological energies. Some rituals are done at sunset, midnight, or sunrise for magickal reasons, or when a star or planet is rising, overhead, making an aspect, or has entered a new sign.
  • Putting as much effort in closing and devocation as you do with opening, evocation, and spell work.
  • Cohesive ritual movements—each group or tradition may be different, but when participating in the group, going with the flow of the group. If everyone faces north and raises their left hand, even if you learned the right hand, if you are joining them, use your left hand. If everyone is saying “So mote it be” and you learned “It is so,” join with them for now. If you are leading a ritual outside of the group, then you can introduce them to your traditions and they should follow your lead or a discussion can lead to a new cohesion between different traditions. Otherwise it can be a dissonant note in an otherwise harmonious ritual. This is not to say we all don’t make mistakes or get turned around, and those missteps are lovingly accepted, but it’s the general intention. Witchcraft is rebellious by nature, but sometimes we are rebellious towards each other so much we are at cross purposes, and while seemingly offering our help, we actually create disruption. There are times when we dance together and have a partner in a complementary step, times when we have a synchronized line dance, and times when it’s a freeform dance party. All are beautiful and appropriate, but we have to know which is which and where each occurs at what point in our rituals.
  • Maintaining the atmosphere set by the ritual, be it joyful, humorous, somber, or serious. Changing the tone of the rite, making yourself the center of attention, or otherwise distracting from the purpose and experience is disrespectful to those running it and to those participating with you.
  • Attempting a recipe as best you can before altering and adapting it. Substitutions should be congruent with the energy of what you are replacing: for example, salt is not a substitute for pepper just as willow is not a substitute for nettles.
  • Snuffing candles rather than blowing them out. While in vogue to think of it as a silly superstition, the breath carries life energy and can imbalance a working, which is at the root of the idea of “angering an elemental” who will backfire your spell. It’s a tradition of respect and efficiency often disregarded by those who will then adopt other systems with just as arbitrary prohibitions, disrespecting the occult roots where they first learned in favor of something seemingly more exotic.
  • Learning complementary skills to enhance magickal work and aid the community. In past times covens would often have people trained in in-depth astrology, herbalism, music, sewing, woodworking, and in a few cases, metal working. Now I see weavers, trained chefs, and martial artists. Craft extends beyond magick, and learning a traditional art or craft lends to the deepening of magickal Craft as there are many parallels. The best magicians I know were often formally trained in music, dance, or art, or apprenticed in a hands-on trade in alignment with their values. One of my mentors was a hair stylist in honor of the Goddess, aligning vocation with divine virtue. In a time when everyone wants to be an online professional influencer, hands-on skills are a powerful and necessary component of training. This can lead to the identities of Stone Witch or Green Witch, but should be based on deep experience, not just identity. Most are encouraged to learn multiple areas in their training, and there is no need to only fixate on just one.

Tradition is passed in quiet moments as well as big lessons, from watching and participating in repeated cycles. In our online school, we faced these challenges by including much of this information as “wisdom lectures,” short and long bits of culture and philosophy. We have mentorship programs to cycle again and see old teachings in new ways. Ideas can be both preserved and still evolve in the context of the tradition and community. Questions can be answered. Ancestral knowledge and elder teachings are passed on and added.

If we identify strongly with Witchcraft, then there should be a desire to seek out what has been as we craft what will be new. As a young musician into late 80’s metal, I sought out my own influences, studying early rock and roll, blues, classical, and folk music. While I didn’t practice those things, learning them deepened my own music and art. I had the context of what came before. I had a sense of roots.

In all things a balance can be struck. While things can naturally break down and provide a fertile bed for new growth, it disheartens me to see devolution, the regression of consciousness and philosophy. A balance of our natural rebellion, curious innovation, and loyalty to tradition can keep us growing and evolving. Some practices, groups, and traditions won’t last more than a season. Others return year after year. Some spread by root and seed. Some grow strong and old. Some gardeners make the mistake of unknowingly giving all the attention to that which doesn’t serve. Water and weed what you wish to grow and starve that which destroys your garden.

Temple of Witchcraft