by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Just like there are generations in our society, with lovely titles and identities such as Boomer, Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennial based upon birth year (and astrological outer planets, but that is another post), there are occultist generations. Dependent more upon your entry point into the Craft rather than your chronological age, these points frame your reference as to what Witchcraft is, what you do, and how it looks. They shape our sense of esoteric history and our perception of exactly what community was, is, and should be.
Some learn to flow with the next generation, and some do not. At the very least, understanding the context helps us relate to others with different entry points.
This list is not comprehensive and academic, nor meant to paint any one group as the hero, villain, or victim, but simply a fun way to look at where we have been to relate to where we are going, examining some of our assumed biases along the way. There are of course regional differences, and occult generations span time and overlap with no hard beginnings and ends as the people from previous generations continue to practice their ways and make new hybrids. Your own experiences will vary. I obviously have an American perspective. As much of it predates my firsthand knowledge, I’m relying on books as well as the color of the times as presented by friends and elders in the Craft and our personal conversations. Special thanks to late night conversations specifically with Raven Grimassi and Donald Michael Kraig, tea with Laurie Cabot, and many other discussions with some old-school, less public Witch friends.
50s Occult Secret History Revival
While we can talk secret covens and family traditions or the British occult scene, here is where we have the first major entry point of what would be later called Traditional Wicca and the honored elders of Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner, and even more in the shadows, Robert Cochrane. Without them, would any of us be doing what we are doing now? I don’t think so, or at least not in the way we are doing it. I am sure Witchcraft would still find a way. Their works and the works of those around them brought living Witchcraft to popular consciousness and opened a door to seekers everywhere. Those who entered found a formal coven-based occultism of secrecy and formal initiation. The traditions were built on not only Witch folklore and grimoire traditions, but also the strands of ceremonial magick, Theosophy, masonry, and spiritualism. They were drawing inspiration from Dr. Margaret Murray, James George Frazer, and Robert Graves. Though he wouldn’t make himself known in occult circles until the 1960s, this is also the world of Alex Sanders, who often brought an even stronger ceremonial slant to his Craft. And we cannot forget the popular TV show Bewitched, as Samantha Stephens now has a statue in the Witchcraft mecca—Salem, Massachusetts. Those who enter in this paradigm often perceive the Witch Cult Mythos as a literal truth, as an ancient and unbroken line. They also have a serious and deep commitment to the priesthood of the Craft, with the secrecy and seeming authority conveying the true responsibility of the work. They can have a hard time seeing our elders’ clay feet on those high pedestals, but most have undergone a true initiatory transformation into keepers of the mysteries.
60s Peace and Love Utopia Paganism
The sixties had Gardnerian Wicca officially reach the shores of the United States through Raymond Buckland. Many Wiccans can trace their lineage to Buckland’s coven. While he established Seax Wicca in 1974, his museum began in the late 60s and a form of it, The Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick, is thriving in Cleveland, Ohio today (my first athame is displayed there.)
In England, we have the early rise of popularity and notoriety of Sanders, particularly through the books Witchcraft the Sixth Sense by Justine Glass and King of the Witches by June John. Many of the Witches of Gardner’s era now had a little more freedom to step out into their own light. Sybil Leek began writing her popular books, appearing on television and soon moving to the United States. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart started in the Church of All Worlds in the United States in the early sixties, eventually gaining nonprofit status as the first Earth Religion with recognition as a legal church. This began the public American Pagan movement, eventually intertwined with, but not wholly encompassed by either Witchcraft or Wicca.
While not technically Witchcraft, a lot of the surging of Eastern metaphysics, psychedelics, and indigenous traditions, real or imagined, such as the popular writings of Carlos Castaneda, created a potent mix. Less well-documented was the stirring of the first really occult supply shops on the cusp of the late 60s and the strange folk of a variety of occult organizations intermingling within them. In many of these overlapping subcultures, there was a sense that things were changing in the world. Due to the popularity of the musical Hair, people were waiting for the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in reality, not just on the stage. Politics and metaphysics overlapped in terms of protest and changing the world. The politics of the ancient Witch involved poison, or at least cursing. Ancient Priesthoods were nationalistic, an aspect that had previously appeared during the Magical Battle of Britain in World War II, with Dion Fortune and some British Witches organizing Operation Cone of Power, which may or may not have associations with Gardner and his elders, depending on the version of the tale. Otherwise most orders left politics at the door like a Masonic Lodge. Now the flower children were seeking Witches and shamans and potential young Witches were part of the hippie generation, and protests intersected more with spirituality, though they already had in the East with the Indian Independence Movement. Part of Gandhi’s inspriation came from The Bhagavad Gita, and his first exposure to this text was actually through the western occultists of the Olcott brothers, prominent members in the Theosophical Society. Those Witches entering through this point can now have a strong nostalgia for the past but also the optimism that ancient wisdom and magickal values will soon be a part of the overall secular world as humanity evolves. Some have become pessimistic as their hopes are not realized.
70s Sexual Liberation and Exploration of Alternative Religion
The stage of the late sixties set up what was coming, with both the flourishing of more and more groups as they branched out from what was established and created their own permutations of the work, and remarkably, the first ritual books with intended practices and traditions for solitary Witches, Wiccans, and Pagans. Alex Sanders continued to ride the media wave of the seventies with a brand of flash and substance that attracted people to the Craft, and Sybil Leek also continued her work in the media. With Laurie Cabot, we had a truly American teacher of Witchcraft in the media, opening her first shop, teaching her first classes of Witchcraft as a Science, and establishing Salem, Massachusetts, for good or ill as a gathering place for Witches to reclaim their identity in the shadow of the Salem Witchcraft Trial history. Less well known at the time, intriguing non-Wiccan traditions such as the Feri Tradition of Victor and Cora Anderson influenced what was going on. While people sought instruction and teachers, there was also the start of the “do it myself” exploration phase of Witchcraft. Even though Scott Cunningham often gets the credit or blame for the self/solitary initiation movement, it was Buckland’s The Tree that really started it.
While people sought instruction and teachers, there was also the start of the “do it myself” exploration phase of Witchcraft. While sexuality was always a part of many forms of Witchcraft, the often titillating exposés in media, both good and bad, brought it front and center with staged photos of semi-naked initiates. A larger emphasis on an idea that had always been present, polarity—expressed in the union of Goddess and God, of man and woman—became a strong force in the community, but also made possible other options and ideas as new books became available. Liberation ideas of the 70s intersected with growing civil rights, including women’s rights and queer rights, and the beginning of Witch Rights, legal protection for practicing the religion of Witchcraft and Paganism. Networking, often through the letter columns of magazines or through catalogs and newsletters, became more common, weaving together national scenes. The growing sense of legitimacy, legal recognition, incorporation, land ownership, and clear membership rules or requirements that followed the founding of the Church of All Worlds grew into a stronger movement with more organizations. Those entering through this gate have a strange mix of formality and tradition mixed with a liberal view of exploration and creativity up to a point. Some Americans were seeking to capture the British mystique they saw in the Craft while others were trying to do their own thing. Many are serious occultists often working solitary and in small groups, while others were more focused on community building and the smaller social experience of finding belonging and acceptance in community.
80s Feminist Matriarchal Utopia Vision, Social Protest, and New Age Metaphysics
Though published in 1979, Margot Adler’s work Drawing Down the Moon, which documented the Pagan groups in existence and the work of Starhawk and her Spiral Dance, brought forth ideas found in Anderson Feri with ecology, justice, and feminism, forming a foundation for the next wave. Stone Age ancestors such as the artists of the famous cave painting The Sorcerer had been linked to Witchcraft since before the 50s, but the idea of a matriarchal utopia as our literal history cemented in the collective leading to a stronger emphasis on indigenous and tribal traditions, structures, and aesthetics, or at least romantic notions of such, as people searched for new ways of being in community outside of some of the previous authoritarian structure of covens, lodges, and orders.
The view of ancient global esoteric traditions espoused in Theosophy became more and more the popular idea in the New Age community, which began the very slow process of embracing Witchcraft and Paganism, as it had with Native American traditions when indigenous teachers began sharing teachings with non-indigenous people. Shops catered to both, and many Pagans participated in the Harmonic Convergence. Social protests continued, particularly on environmental and economic grounds, and Laurie Cabot protested the defamation of Witches as found in The Witches of Eastwick movie, giving greater mainstream attention to the idea that Witches—as real people—lived among them as well as environment issues and the use of nuclear power.
Pagan culture continued to grow with more Pagan specific music, more festivals, and a wave of new publishing including the immensely popular books of Scott Cunningham, popularizing a simple heartfelt eclectic and solitary Wicca for anyone called to it. This was the permission many needed to bypass any form of in-person or correspondence training and establish new groups with no direct links to covens of the past. This development is heralded as one of the greatest moments in Paganism by many, and the worst by his critics, but it created a sense of freedom, excitement, and exploration that still reverberates here and now.
90s Eclectic Revolution of Everything
This was my entry point to Witchcraft, receiving personal mentorship from an elder of the 80s entry point who opened the door for me. Later came training through public classes with Laurie Cabot, just before the boom of Witchcraft in mainstream media with movies like The Craft and television shows like the first Sabrina and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the its character Willow. If I had gotten my initial training later, I probably would have been more enchanted with the shows, but I spent a lot of time, like many others, explaining how Witchcraft was similar and reminiscent, but not the same thing as portrayed in TV and movies. With the Internet, we had access to more, including direct community with The Witch’s Voice website, and occult publishing expanded. Chain bookstores began curating “New Age” or “Esoteric Studies” sections in every suburban town. Silver Ravenwolf continued the popular author line as Scott Cunningham passed. To fill this growing need, many new authors were given a voice through popular books, and a more varied popular craft, from the traditional to more experimental, grew. This peak is not unlike where we are today in 2021, yet without the same level of social media hype, a yet-to-be-invented phenomenon.
These were the days of AOL (American Online) chat rooms. Pagan Pride Days began to form, as did esoteric books clubs at those chain bookstores. You didn’t necessarily need a coven, though more and more of them were out there to find, from the formal to the eclectic, including a wide range of different practices that were called Wicca. Many in their experimental side had an oppositional streak. Tell someone to do something specific, they will do the opposite to just break with tradition and see if it worked, though many lacked the esoteric basis to evaluate success or failure critically. The scarier occult stores (which I miss terribly) were giving way to more popular metaphysical shops where Witchcraft was one of many things for sale, and new influences permeated Witchcraft because of it, creating an almost anything-goes ethos that built upon the solitary initiation lore. Seekers may study Witchcraft for a time, and then move onto to something else.
In my own experience I found a transition as the LGBT (not yet with the QIA) began taking more prominence and space in practices that were often considered very heteronormative (to use today’s language). Along with a growing academic interest in accurately documenting the short history of the modern movement, the efforts to devalue and debunk the founders of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, efforts which had always been around, grew more popular with easier communication. Pagan traditions rooted in culturally specific historic reconstruction, divorced from occultism, with alchemical, Qabalistic, Gnostic and Islamic overlays (or Theosophical with Eastern ones) became a more viable option. Through this we see Heathenry and Norse Paganism in many forms, from their identification as a popular type of Paganism to their more political expression, come under the pan-Pagan banner, usually through Pagan Pride Days. Later they would seek to dissassociate themselves from occultist Paganism.
00s Tradition, Trad Craft, and Dark Fluff
While it had been around since the 50s at least, the aughts started the rumblings of popular Trad Craft and the deepening divide between Wicca and Witchcraft. While many differences existed among the majority of the community population, few got mad when Wiccan and Witch were used synonymously, and while traditionalists often chafed at newbie eclectics, there was not a high level of vitriol. The community was small enough that there was a general sense of sticking together when dealing with the outside world. Of course we had our inner community fights, our Witch Wars, but there was still solidarity.
Not so by the mid-2000s. The much photocopied Cochrane letters were bound and printed as a book, and others in that vein began printing more, mostly from the UK in likely response to the glut of popular Llewellyn books. Much of the popular literature with mainstream appeal was labeled “fluffy bunny” by many, a judgment that was sometimes right and sometimes simply oppositional. Medieval Occultism, Christian heresy, folklore, and Witchcraft trial transcriptions became the new foundation, and the Wiccan Rede and the Law of Three were tossed aside without deeper contemplation. A divide between Traditional Wicca and the eclectic and solitary forms became more pronounced, creating distance between the two, and a resurgence of interest in the formal Wicca traditions grew as people engaged in a quest for authenticity, validity, and approval through lineage. As mainstream Wicca hit some ridiculous points of “fluff,” this darker Craft eventually went to a similar albeit inverted place of “dark fluff,” competing to see who could present as the darkest and scariest of the Witches, forgetting light is at the heart of all these traditions.
Mid-00s to Mid-teens: Search for Authenticity, Academia and Change
Those not looking for power or authenticity through a darker folkloric or traditional bent sought it out in more academic pursuits by studying history, anthropology, myth, and society. Legitimacy wasn’t conferred by elders of initiation or secret tradition, but in knowledge of past and pattern, though many practicing occultists would argue academia missed big chunks of living wisdom, and academia often said such was unverifiable by academic standards.
We also had the first public pushes for a more regional Witchcraft rather than a universal, rooted in the biodiversity of a specific land and lore, though the complexity of indigenous myths rooted in the land intermingling with settler folklore created some issues later down the line for many. Rather than the Earth Mother, focus shifted to the local land goddess as expressed in the hills and fields, the rivers and lakes, the flora and fauna. Sharing of both research and opinion grew with the advent of blogs beyond the past webpages, and we had the rise of personal social media to express everything. While The Witch’s Voice was still present, the next generation looked to the journalism of our growing community in The Wild Hunt website. As community online grew, so too did things in the flesh with more festivals, shops, musicians, public sabbats, and public teachers. Authenticity also grew in new ways through Pagan organizations, with more religious nonprofits, more legal help for those discriminated against for being Pagan, more civil education and protection of rights such as the success of Selena Fox and Circle Sanctuary, and more Pagan participation in things like the Parliament of World Religions. This is when the Temple of Witchcraft community formally organized as a nonprofit to embody the teachings and training outside of a coven hierarchy, with the goals of both preservation and growth beyond a single generation.
The Teens: Activism, Religion, and Social Media Community
In the last decade many entered into magickal community through activism or religion, sometimes both at once and often through the gate of social media rather than in-person meetings. In the quest for authenticity, there has been a growing movement to divorce the “woo woo” or occultism-magick from the religion, believing the magick is what prevents Paganism from being a major religious force on our community. (Personally I find this view abhorrent and feel this movement should be separated from all Paganism to be its own separate paradigm with a different name.) Psychic power and spells make us look crazy to others. Some seek a simple eco-paganism divorced from the old gods entirely, while others look to culturally specific Paganism with an emphasis on prayer, veneration, and offering as the daily religion, with some community specialists in magick, healing, and divination. Such societal power can be channeled into social change. Old-school occultists might consider their practice a religion legally, but in truth akin to the mystery cults of the ancient world or the theurgistic philosophers, but it is ultimately a religion of gnosis, of experience from technique, not shared belief or creed. We are not a prophetic religion. There is not the dogma of orthodoxy, though we might have clear group practices, much in the way Buddhists will say Buddhism, even the tantric cults steeped in esoteric art, are not a religion but a way of life.
Congruent but also at times separate from this new religious pattern is the work of equity and social justice as part and parcel of Paganism on issues of the environment, race, class, gender, orientation, indigenous land, economics, healthcare, and accessibility. Our philosophy is one of interdependence and interconnection, and all those things are interconnected. Much of the activity is limited to an online presence with mixed success, and many who enter at this point often emphasize their relationship to the issues as a priority, as a spiritual practice, over the techniques and experiences encoded in the traditions and rituals they study. With these conversations, the voices and leadership of people of color and a more diverse LGBTQIA community has grown.
The social media explosion has lent itself to another boom in Witchcraft—particularly in publishing, media, and merchandise—but has also had the unfortunate effect of many new practitioners immediately feeling they need to have a “presence” online and be “professional,” monetizing their Craft as readers, teachers, authors, retailers, and influencers, perhaps before they have really learned it. Becoming a big fish in a little pond over time has given way to the idea of immediately being a big fish in the big pond, without a lot of chances to try, fail, and grow protected from the judgment of a million eyes.
In a similar vein grew the concept of Witch as an identity not necessarily hinged to any practice of Witchcraft or occultism. “Witch” is not necessarily something you do, but something you are, which is somewhat strange to the older generations, where it is both but nonetheless precipitated upon the idea of actually practicing Witchcraft. Perhaps this isn’t a fair comparison, since we do see Christians not practicing any form of Christianity yet still claiming the identity and symbols while bending Christianity to fit their own current beliefs and practices. As for the blessings, a wider range of diverse voices with more resources than ever before had led to some really interesting new ideas, teachings, art, writing, “takes,” and collections of lore we have never seen before, giving the Craft an injection of vitality.
Which generation of Craft do you belong to? Was it your entry point, or have you shifted with what has come next, or pulled back to a previous era before your time? Think about friends, mentors, elders, students, and peers. Do you know or can you imagine their entry point? How are you weaving it all together for yourself? And what do you think is next?
Jason Mankey has an excellent series of Time Capsule blogs depicting the culture of Witchcraft in the decades.