The Bond of Witches

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Often called the mother of modern Witchcraft, Doreen Valiente was known to say, “A witch is a witch is a witch is a witch,” most likely paraphrasing a famous exchange between Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Her ethos is simple: There is a bond between Witches that goes beyond any coven, tradition, region, language, culture, or nation. Something greater runs through all Witches, and the differences should be celebrated.

Famous for working with Gerald Gardner to establish what is known as Gardnerian Wicca and much of the British Traditional Wicca/Witchcraft material found in the most famous version of The Book of Shadows, she didn’t stop there. Considering today’s strong divisions between what is considered Wicca and the Traditional or Cunning Craft, and even stronger divides between Traditional Wicca and eclectic and solitary Wicca, Valiente forged a path we would do well to observe and emulate. Keeping to her “a witch is a witch is a witch” ethos after her departure from Gardner over his revelation of the Witch laws known as the “Ardanes” (in response to her proposal of some fairly down-to-earth “rules” for the coven), she later studied with the Coven of Atho of Raymond Howard, with Charles and Mary Cardell, and with the Clan of Tubal Cain with Robert Cochrane. Later Valiente worked with The Regency, a group that evolved out of the work of Cochrane.

She reached across tradition lines, having correspondence and relationships within and across her various groups with figures such as Patricia and Arnold Crowther, Janet and Stewart Farrar, William Gray, Evan John Jones, Maxine Sanders, Starhawk, Aiden Kelly, and Raven Grimassi. She even restored and maintained a relationship with Gerald after their falling out, and defended him after his death regarding the reality of his initiators in the original New Forest Coven, seeking out new research to vindicate him when others believed he fabricated his initiation story. She was involved with and participated in larger Pagan organizations, including the Pagan Front, the Pagan Federation, and the Center for Pagan Studies, and after her death, the Doreen Valiente Foundation was founded to preserve her work and mission. The mother of modern Witchcraft didn’t shy away from the occult interpretations of the New Age, fully embracing the ideas of the Age of Aquarius, the Gaia Hypothesis, and ley lines.

All of this is to illustrate the eclectic, open, and community-based approach of one of our founders, a woman whose work influences us all consciously and unconsciously, and hope the approach will inspire our own. I often think of her as the patron saint of the bond between Witches, and while a formal initiate of several groups, she was also famous to ask, “Who initiated the first witch?” to question the “initiates only” exclusive approach and to show that perhaps there was something greater than the bonds of initiation in any one tradition. There are other ways to be a Witch beyond being “made” by a specific rite.

Today we see the lines of division in our own community growing. Perhaps some is for the best, for as various strands of Pagan culture, religion, and spirituality grow and become richer, we see the increasing differences and attitudes. When at one time the Pagan generally embraced all things rejected by Christianity, searching for pre-Christian roots, now there are clearer divisions between Pagan, Heathen, African Traditional Religions, and various reconstruction religions. We find the growing divide between ancient religions renewed, including the old occult coven and lodge structures influenced by Masonry and ceremonial magick, and shy away from the esoteric teachings of alchemy and Qabalah, or the influence of Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, or Madame Blavatsky. Divisions grow between hard and soft polytheism that would have been alien thirty years ago in the greater Pagan community. The political division between communities has always been present on some level, yet was more often rooted in personality than true politics. Today we must account for the growing understanding of culture and the effects of colonialism and capitalism. Yet the Witch stands between all these things, at various times empowered by the diversity or pulled apart by the dichotomy. And we ask, in the immortal words of the fictional warrior and wise woman Buffy Summers, “Where do we go from here?” What will Witchcraft become in the growing generations? And how do we add to and manifest a vision can be inclusive without diminishing the mysteries or denying the foundation of our occult heritage?

Despite being a co-founder of a very public tradition, the Temple of Witchcraft, I hold a view not unlike Doreen Valiente’s. I believe even the most educated Witch must continue to learn and grow and study, a process that comes from books, intuitive experience, and other teachers and peers. Today many move to close ranks, keeping the illusion of control or authority in a single identity, yet the Witch transcends them all. I find common ground and inspiration in those who seek out other ways while continuing their base. I find common ground with those who share with discretion with friends, peers, students, and teachers. In speaking to a friend who was also struggling with these issues of community, we discussed the difference between holding something close and withholding something from others, which for a time may have the same practical results, but which are held in very different areas of consciousness. We might hold something close and go through a process before something is shared and revealed, to make sure the recipient is properly prepared. Withholding is the fear of losing out, the belief that losing control of something, or in sharing power, is power lost. It is the attitude that the power comes from the material instead of understanding that the teaching is the catalyst for inner power.

In times past, initiates would share their secrets with each other through cross initiation. And that, like all things, brought its own blessings and curses. Those of like mind, of true intent, could open the oaths and vows by initiating another, exchanging degrees between two systems so that discussion, comparison, and exploration could happen, furthering the mysteries and often creating new and different things from synthesis; however, such practices then created many High Priests and Priestesses in name, oath and, initiation, but not in the living practice. Could the Gardnerian cross-initiated into Alexandrian traditions initiate another into Alexandrian current without running and living in a rooted Alexandrian group? Yes. Should they? That is another question. One might argue the difference between the two are subtle at best, but to those who chose one over the other as a main practice, those differences are huge and should be respected. So when those not rooted in traditions then further pass initiations onward as experts in those traditions, the practice becomes misunderstood, watered down, and ultimately diminished. While I think cross initiations can further the Craft in deep and meaningful ways, I think the one passing the initiation should always be a person deeply rooted in that tradition, not someone who would pass initiations and their traditions haphazardly.

Beyond the specifics of initiatory lore, the act of discretion is at the heart of the matter. Through discretion, the essence and experience can be shared between peers. To a practitioner, it quickly becomes obvious who continues to do the work, and who has not and does not, but tries to present that illusion. You can recognize similar levels of awareness to share that are not bound by rank or degree, but by an invisible, yet nonetheless real, virtue. Those who are far more concerned with their particular version of their Book of Shadows are less concerned about the essence and more focused on the outer form.

Today many people are seeking to outdo each other in terms of darkness and power, or in the realm of academia. I have had friends over the years who we’ve dubbed charter members of the “Dark and Scary Motherfuckers Club” because they hold a Craft devoid of things like the Wiccan Rede as more powerful and superior to other forms of Craft. Others can suffer from “my book report is better than your book report” syndrome. Both have their place in the Craft (in the Temple’s school we encourage demonstrations of psychic ability, magickal power, and academic understanding through homework and reports), but none of these are the deeper mystery. Deep within the process is the interconnection of love, service, regeneration, and divinity that is at the core of mystery traditions. Our particular expression is through the triad of Love, Will, and Wisdom. As Witches are said to recognize their own, across all traditions, within and without the Craft itself, initiates of the great mystery recognize those who have entered into it by the authentic consciousness they hold.

All traditions, Witchcraft or not, point towards a mystery that cannot be fully revealed, so each reveals their perspective. No one tradition has all the answers to all the questions and experiences. I am a big advocate of the three-fold way of Dion Fortune, and find once you have immersed yourself deeply in one training, it compliments you to have deep experience in two others, to round your way towards the mystery and prevent dogma. While it is often best to reach broadly from only Witchcraft, studying other Witchcraft traditions can deepen your own experience and synthesis. A student of the Temple, a High Priestess in a British Traditional Wicca line herself, was recently confronted by another BTW High Priest who wanted to know what was missing from her tradition that she would seek study elsewhere. While her original post articulated her reasons, one need only to look at Doreen Valiente to see this High Priestess following her footsteps. She continues her own ways, and looks for experience, ideas, inspiration and support in other places and traditions. She holds close the mysteries of her coven without withholding. She participates in the greater institutions to the level she feels called. She is a true leader and teacher.

We look to other traditions, older than modern Paganism and modern Witchcraft. For all our leaning towards our ancient roots, we have been disconnected from them, so we need to see how other esoteric traditions have grown. We like to look to indigenous people and tribal traditions, and are sometimes accused of appropriating such practices, often rightly so. We speak of decolonization of land, culture, and spirit, and consider ways to incorporate the essence without disrespecting the culture. In many indigenous cultures, we see a similar ethos, even if we fail in the practice of it, towards the land and the spirit world, with a framework today that has become loosely called “shamanic.” Yet we most likely won’t be returning to or recreating an indigenous framework of our Pagan practices because we live in a secular world and don’t share a common agreement of culture and identity. Those fundamental disagreements are at the heart of our modern society, and the disagreements in Pagan culture are simply pale reflections of those conflicts. Yet Witches can thrive even in conflicted and chaotic times, using the experience to further our own understanding of consciousness and Craft.

We also like to look at Eastern traditions, and the many permutations of Hinduism and Buddhism, for deeply esoteric practices within the body of a larger religious framework. We see common themes of traditional medicine using herbs, gems, and energy. We see astrology and complex pantheons of deities. We see temples of strange geometry and fantastic empowered art and statuary. We see the expansion of local indigenous spirits into a complex theology and find resonance there as well. Yet Hinduism and Buddhism pervade the cultures they are in. These are also not secular societies, so it’s hard to have the institutional support for such endeavors without those shared cultural values placing importance as necessary.

So we must forge a third way, one that speaks to where we are here and now. We must look at all of these things and create many forms. We must look to the divides revealed by the indigenous and the East, often summed in the difference between the oral traditions and the scriptural. Oral traditions don’t directly instruct, but inform a world view that supports the developing culture. We need more oral traditions to be passed, to inform our various subcultures participating in Paganism in general and to inform Paganism existing in the secular global world. The Eastern traditions are filled with esoteric documents and scriptures in the form of the Vedas and various sutras. While Witches and Pagans will be the first to tell you we have no holy books per se, that our scripture is written in nature, we have had esoteric documents like those of the tantrik traditions. We have personal grimoires and the European grimoire tradition. We have formularies and recipe books, journals outlining a practitioner’s techniques and progress, and of course, the various Books of Shadow. Such texts outline techniques and form maps of exploration, but don’t always inform culture. To grow in a healthy manner, we need to develop both sides and navigate our way in a secular Western world where there is no fundamental spiritual agreement. This is the essence of the Aquarian Age, a plurality of views co-existing.

So to my fellow Witches within and beyond the Temple of Witchcraft, if it be your Will, I encourage you to develop an approach that honors the bond of Witches everywhere if the overall Pagan divisions are too much for you to navigate. I encourage you to not throw out our occult roots, but to transform and heal the holdovers from Victorian occultism regarding race, class, orientation, and nation. Don’t throw out the comparisons to both esoteric Christianity and Eastern traditions when they serve to illuminate a point of understanding, for as there is a bond between all Witches, the same can be said for the mystical seekers of all religions. Seek to learn and share with other sincere seekers and Witches of all stripes and traditions. Forge bonds within your own tradition and across to other communities. Don’t stop learning and questioning, but also take the time to consolidate, synthesize, and build. Share your own research, experience, and traditions in the ways you see fit, but as you hold them close, don’t seek to withhold them as a demonstration of poweroveranother. Always seek to express power withanother, in right relationship of the spirit of the Witch.

Temple of Witchcraft