By Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Occultism usually marks development and evolution in a series of stages. Witches and Magicians have degrees of initiation with modern practitioners drawing much of their systems from Freemasons. We have the Descent of the Underworld, the Tree of Life, the Hero’s Journey, astrological cycles, and the stages of alchemy. They occur in both formal initiation rituals and the stuff of life, the one true initiation ever challenging us to go forward.
Yet Witchcraft in full practice, not just theory, is really messy. There are lots of things that don’t show up in the normal stages of initiation systems, and even when they do, poetry often fails to prepare us for the nitty-gritty of life experiences.
I’ve been practicing a long while, involved in community and teaching. I’ve had a privileged perspective of support from lots of elders and have seen a lot of beginners start their path. Being between the two has helped me see my own journey better.
Here are some stages not often talked about and not necessarily flowing in a sequential order. Each of our paths is unique; therefore our initiatory journeys will be unique.
Excitement—Usually near the start of your journey, everything is bright and shiny. Every new idea and experience is wonderful, and all seems possible. Though such feeling can wear off fast, wise is the Witch who can return to this stage again and again between other stages of awareness, rekindling the sense of child-like excitement.
Naivety—Often hand-in-hand with the first phase of excitement, there is a feeling that not only is everything wonderful, but everyone is wonderful as well, at least in the Witchcraft world. You have found family, tribe, acceptance, and love. Compared to the outside world of your past experiences, everyone is spiritual and evolving and mature…until they are not. And then Witches remind you that they too, and you, are still human regardless of psychic abilities and magickal gifts. Neither are signs of enlightenment or general goodness.
Proselytizing—Witches do not proselytize. We don’t seek to convert. Until we do. In the excitement and naivety phase we think, “This is awesome! Why isn’t everyone a Witch!?!” And our over-enthusiasm in sharing what works for us can alienate those close to us who don’t get it or simply know it’s not for them. I can remember the look of horror on some of my Catholic high-school friends’ faces as I told them I was a Witch and explained everything on my altar. They thought I had lost my mind. Years later I remember doing a birthday circle for a student’s 50th birthday celebration as the collection of affluent suburban housewives gave her the same look. When you are excited, you can dismiss the strange looks, but being a Witch changes others’ perception of you, and not being aware of that change is not much different than those religions that go door-to-door.
Resistance to the Witch Word—The flip side of the proselytization phase is resistance. This is all well and good as ideas and art, but Witchcraft? Isn’t that silly? Isn’t that what happens in the movies, all make-believe and pretend and wanna-be cos play? Do you have to dress like that? Is any of this really spiritual? In this phase you must come to terms with what being a Witch means to you, but also be open to how that evolves over time in your life. You also have to decide if there is wisdom and strength in having links to those before us who were called Witches…or not.
Insecurity—Feelings of inadequacy can be a theme throughout our path. Is our opinion on something educated enough? Are we worthy enough? Have we done enough? Are we psychic enough? Are we powerful enough? Are we enough? It can rise and fall over time, but it is a current that many people carry throughout their magickal career, especially when entering new phases and roles. Despite past successes, our confidence can diminish when faced with new challenges, but the key is that even in our insecurity, we must keep moving forward to do our work and magick.
All the Books!—In this phase, we read anything we can get our hands on, often all at once. With relatively easy access to books, websites, articles, and videos, we are in a massive information-consuming phase, much like a hungry caterpillar seeking to fuel metamorphosis.
No Books! (Phase 1)—The stage is usually the immature “I don’t need any books” phase, where we feel we don’t need to listen to anyone, that anything we need is within us. Yes…and no. I have all that I need to do karate inherent in my body, yes, but I need karate instruction to actually do karate. Otherwise I’m just kicking and punching randomly. Likewise technique, folklore, mythology, and history can ground our experiences in the roots of tradition, and from there, we express what is unique within us.
No Books! (Phase 2)—This more mature stage occurs when we have already read a lot, digested a lot, and need to give our mental body a break from consuming and digesting information. We need to let the seeds planted there start to grow, caring for them through a mindful practice instead of planting more seeds of information. We realize if we stay in the All the Books! phase, we’ll just grow distracted and not accomplish anything.
Regurgitation—This occurs when we have been in the All The Books! phase for a while and have taken in a lot of information which we then repeat to those who haven’t read the same things, to appear wise and knowing, or have lots of opinions on what we read and will tell them to anyone who will—or in some cases, won’t—listen to us. The recital and opinions have no weight of experience behind them, and while they can be accurate at times, they are only on the mental level of communication and knowledge.
Digestion—Digestion can come after a phase of book learning or even training, hopefully allowing you to avoid regurgitation, or at least follow regurgitation if a little wisdom and humility is gained. You have digested the material you read, and found ways to live it and integrate it into your experience and worldview. You might have let go of some things that don’t work for you, but you’ll have an informed understanding of why, and you’ll have a clearer sense of what you do know and live, and what you don’t know and haven’t lived or understood, and you won’t feel the need to be an expert in everything.
Synthesis—Synthesis follows digestion, allowing us to take several different digested views and experiences and bring them into new formations and possibility. Here is where our own unique insights and experiences shine forth, though many people never get to this stage.
Hard Work—Hard work, the putting to use what is learned, is interwoven in all of this. It comes though reading and learning and—most importantly—through doing and living. Some people become all work and no fun, with everything becoming deathly serious, so part of the learning is realizing magick should be as joyful as it is serious. You need your Child Self to see the hidden ways.
Selective Reading—Selective Reading often comes after periods of digestion and synthesis, where one stops grabbing anything and everything and instead curates a reading list that includes more wisdom and less bullshit. It is also a time when one goes back from the more modern books to the classics, to academic material, or to works by the “masters” of their craft in their age and time.
Confidence—A sense of confidence grows from progressing in the work and taking honest stock of how far you’ve come and how far you have to go. You are in a phase of getting over insecurity (at least on some level), putting in the work, and developing relationships. You begin to see a separation from some of your peers who may have started around the same time as you, but who have not put the work into their practice.
Overconfidence—Overconfidence is often the overcompensation for insecurity. After a period of confident success, particularly in outer magick and goals, you can grow quite easily into overconfidence and lose perspective of your own abilities. Many magicians at this stage think they are invincible and try foolish things they are not prepared for. Goetic magick, qlipothic exploration, working with higher angelic orders, healing without safety precautions, and running too quickly into invocatory work without proper support or advice can leave one exhausted, psychically injured, or ill. In the outer world, learning that you are not as powerful as you think often requires someone taking advantage of you when you thought you were invincible. Sadly, it usually takes something like this to break the phase of magickal overconfidence too, usually leading to insecurity before true confidence can be built.
True Confidence—True confidence often comes after a bout of overconfidence, returning to a theme, but realizing that hubris can indeed get you. Your awareness comes less from comparing yourself to others and more from comparing yourself to yourself when you started. You have a greater sense of your measure, of what you know (and don’t know), what you have lived, and what you have to do. You also realize more and more how much you don’t know that you know, but take your grounding in the things you do know and have experienced. True confidence is passing through the veil of adepthood and no longer draining yourself deeply with questions of incompetence or imposter syndrome. You know your strengths and weakness and keep working.
First Group, Coven or Tradition—The First Group phase often coincides with Excitement and Naivety. If it’s an equal sharing group, everyone is wonderful and like family. If it’s a more hierarchical teaching coven, everyone above you is wise and deep and truly magickal. Both are true…until they are not. Someone shows their human side. Someone falls off the pedestal they never asked to be on. Or sometimes, someone really does something heinous, though often we believe it’s something heinous because it didn’t conform to our assumptions and expectations. In rare instances, one simply outgrows the group and quietly and peacefully moves on, though sometimes in such cases there is a need, on one or both sides, to create a drama, a reason to leave, so that one will be able to blame the other rather than peacefully make a change. Groups teach us about people, ourselves and teamwork. Everything serves if you are open to the service and open to the lesson.
Second Group, Coven, or Tradition—The Second Group phase follows the first, usually in either immediate reaction to the experiences of the first (often joining whatever group offers safe harbor after an emotional storm) or after some long, thoughtful contemplation on what you are looking for in a group and what you can offer. Second groups might look at your previous experience and place you in a position of responsibility and leadership, and how you all handle that is the mark of a well-run, clear group. Good second groups can be places of healing and gaining confidence, moving through insecurity, but if they go too far or too fast, they can generate overconfidence.
Third Group, Coven or Tradition—If you get to the Third Group phase, you have usually found a sweet spot. Often it’s because you have great clarity of what you want after the first two. Or perhaps you have helped found a group of like-minded individuals who share similar goals. It doesn’t mean there won’t be problems, but there will be synthesis of the lessons learned previously, hopefully to prevent those same problems. You’ll have new ones, but you’ll hopefully have the maturity to handle them with more grace than in the previous groups.
Righteousness Phase 1—The first round of Righteousness comes when we know just enough to dangerous and become outraged at the small slights. Often coinciding with the proselytizing phase, we identify with our Witch-ness, yet feel the weight of its baggage upon us, even if we haven’t yet personally experienced any discrimination or loss. At this stage you are outraged when people mispronounce Samhain as Sam Hain and tell everyone it’s really Sowen and expect the news reporter interviewing the local Witch to know that. You are upset that schools don’t teach the Burning Times in history class, and you advocate for a memorial to Witchcraft victims in your hometown.
Righteousness Phase 2—The second phase of Righteousness is similar to the first, but far less academic and refined and often directed not at the public at large, but mostly toward New Witches and Pagans, especially those who don’t meet your standards or find the things important that you find important right now. Often we are seeking validation or recognition of our struggle with those that are repeating the mistakes we have made. Phase 2 is marked by outrage when someone calls you Wiccan when obviously you are a Traditional Witch. Now you find it ridiculous when you hear a Witch talking seriously high numbers about the Burning Times and will jump into conversations you are not participating in to correct them and be surprised when they don’t thank you for it.
Media Witch—Back in the day, it was the Witch who called all the newspapers to be interviewed at Halloween, though if you were at all public then, you probably got a few of those calls. Today, it is the Witch who needs to be seen, photographed, or have every thought and idea documented online for people to see. Self worth and validity are tied into fame, popularity, and even infamy, and it’s often as much about the aesthetic as it is the practice.
Helpful—The Helpful phase can happen many times. It is marked by genuinely wanting to be of service to others, but in terms of helping other Witches seeking information and advice or helping other people in a ministerial capacity to make the world a better place. Often in the early phases, it is marked by bad boundaries, not always realizing that everyone doesn’t want your help or is capable of accepting it and making changes, leading to frustrations and withdrawal before another bout of helpfulness. Helpful phases can initiate great projects and times of service, but the motives of why one does it, and what expectations they have, should always be carefully examined. An aspect not emphasized in modern Witchcraft is detachment from the fruit of your actions. If you want to be helpful, be helpful, but without attachment or expectation. Don’t tie your own happiness or self-esteem with the process of helping others. Do it because you sincerely wish to be of service, and if you need an exchange for your services, whatever they are, be honest with yourself and others. For those who have never paid for education in magick before, those of us who charge for services observe that most students pay, one way or another, at some point. Financial transactions are often much cleaner than the currency of unvoiced expectations and assumed loyalty. Keep this in mind when you accept help too.
Outer Leadership—Often as a part of our spiritual journey in community, we are put into a position of leadership, or at the very least administration. It can range from leading the team of volunteers to decorate for a sabbat to larger organizational responsibilities for a public event. Some focus on magickal leadership, such as leading a sabbat or class, but behind every public magickal job, there is administrative work by someone making it happen. Not all Witches in community are meant to be public ritualists, teachers, and coven leaders. Some are very good at organization and management. And some are not. Learn the skills you need to work in community and recognize your own shortcomings. Accept when you need more information or training to be effective. Don’t assume that magickal talent results in people or organizational skills.
Anything Goes Eclectic—Many today learn a style that anything you want to call Witchcraft is Witchcraft and go with it. Some learn a very formal style and then reject it for a more curated, personalized magick. There is both truth and falsehood here. Many people dress up other ideas and systems as Witchcraft, and that can cause problems if they export them to others without a greater context. Many people create eclectic practices and don’t share them, so that is fine for them, but when you say to groups of others that the Virgin Mary is Hecate and to pray the rosary every day to her without any words changed from the traditional prayer and call that Neopagan Witchcraft, you leave new people very confused to what Witchcraft is and isn’t, now and historically. If you follow the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and call it Witchcraft, and there is nothing else “witchy” about it, you are creating confusion. If you say this is how Mother Mary or Buddha has informed my Witchcraft, then I might be there with you, but context is key. Others regenerate and synthesize occult ideas from other traditions and apply them to their Witchcraft. If enough people start using them, then those ideas get incorporated into the greater traditions. From the 1950s on, most occult traditions of magick and Witchcraft had the concept of karma on some level, though it may be quite different from Hindu or Buddhist definitions as it made its way deeper into occultism and then popular thought. Today people bring it around again, comparing karma to Western concepts of fate and wyrd. Context is key. Eclectic times are periods of exploration, hopefully heading toward synthesis.
Orthodox—Often in response to Anything Goes Eclecticism, some turn their Paganism and Witchcraft into orthodoxy (that you can believe only certain things to be a valid practitioner) or orthopraxy (that you can do only certain things to be a valid practitioner). That is fine when representing a single tradition and its practices, but sadly, some apply it across the board in zealousness. Orthodoxy is really the desire for some boundaries, clarity, and grounding in a world where there is none. It includes seeking validation through exclusion and superiority. At times in the path, orthodoxy/orthopraxy can be super helpful to keep focused. In other times, they become very detrimental, for the mystic often finds themselves floating, wandering, and exploring, and having too many rigid boundaries puts you in a box.
Superiority—Both Anything Goes Eclecticism and Orthodoxy can lead to superiority complexes in the practitioner. The former feels free and unbound, a state superior to the bound. The latter feels clear and grounded, a state superior to the ungrounded and illusioned. Which feeling is real depends on where you are in your own particular journey, but I have found attitudes of superiority over others—and identifying too deeply with it—does not do anyone any good for evolution.
Go Your Own Way—In ceremonial magick, they say once you have communion with your Holy Guardian Angel, it becomes your primary teacher. And I wholeheartedly agree! Teachings, lessons, metaphysics, and folklore become investigations in your own journey, but your primary guide, carving your own hidden path, is your own deepest wisdom. Everything you need is not necessarily already in you, but that which you need to guide you to what you need is within you, if you’ll listen and learn. This can be a very hard and lonely phase as peers in any group often feel as if you are abandoning them and their work and traditions, but it’s a truly necessary phase to find your own wisdoms. It can also generate a great sense of freedom and clarity for the first time on the path.
Quest Beyond—This stage—which usually occurs during the process of discovering your equivalent of the Holy Guardian Angel—can lead us to asking the question, “Am I leaving Witchcraft?” Various teachings, groups, and people can seem too limiting, and we have to go beyond what we have previously been taught or have personally defined as Witchcraft. Maybe we will return. Maybe we won’t. The basic rituals can be the foundation stones to return. As a priest, it was immensely important to me to keep the sabbats and the esbats, which kept me linked to my coven at the time, even though I felt in many ways more kinship with Theosophical lightworkers, who then led me to herbalists and healers, who led me to core shamanism, which led me back to occultism, then Qabalistic ceremonial magick and the view that to me, it was all Witchcraft.
Satisfied Dissatisfaction—Often paired with True Confidence, this is part and parcel of following—or attempting to follow—that deep, clear inner guidance. We are good, but we know we are not done. We have found a measure of peace and clarity, but we don’t mistake that for enlightenment. There is more to learn, more to do, more to experience, and more to help. But we do it from a new vantage point. We deeply appreciate the work before us.
Bitter, Jaded or Burned Out—When we can’t find Satisfied Dissatisfaction, we usually end up bitter, jaded, or burned out. We have seen too much, said too much, and done too much, yet still have not reached satisfaction. The joy of helping someone new cannot be found as we cannot see things with fresh eyes or beginner’s mind.
Selfless Service—Satisfied Dissatisfaction can lead to outer manifestations of Selfless Service. Working without ego attachment or lust for results, you feel a sense of what you are to do or be in a given moment, and you are doing the right thing at the right time in the right place. We can certainly go through phases of detachment and selflessness, and then find ourselves right back into attachment and tangled in expectations.
Withdrawn to Self—After going through most of these phases, some people withdraw. Some consciously withdraw as a response to some outside stimuli, good or bad, and others make it a gradual process of going up the mountain. Folks will respond when asked, or engage specific people and circumstances, but are less likely to engage externally on the same level as internally. Those who are called to it smoothly and consciously realize their whole life is a ritual of magick and love, and those who withdraw for the wrong reasons, who are not yet finished, are kicked back out again. Some retreat and return in many heartfelt cycles too.
I’m sure there are far more phases, but these are some of the most prominent I’ve observed in others and myself. The problem with any one of these phases is that we often think we are done. This is it. No more. Yet every time we think that, something new eventually comes unless we get so calcified we can no longer change. Witchcraft is the path of change. If we keep our practice on any level, we will continue to change; this is the higher purpose. Each phase has lessons. Each stage can be refined and bring out better and better traits, even the unpleasant ones. Overconfidence can bring humility. Righteousness can bring academic rigor. The stages of evolution are nonlinear, messy, and as long as we are in a body, never-ending. We continue to learn from birth till death on some level. Hopefully we also learn to read the signposts to see where we are, so we can make better informed decisions on what comes next.