First Degree Studies
NorthWind First Degree Classes
Class 1: What is Wicca?
What is Wicca? Although in many ways, Wicca defies explanation due to the diversity of its practitioners and its depth of meaning, I have attempted to put provide a comprehensive description of the religion of Wicca. I have brought together a group of definitions and descriptions of Wicca to this end.
According to Marion Weinstein in her book Positive Magic, Wicca is "an ancient Celtic magic-religion," the "craft of the wise" according to some interpretations of the word "Wicca". Nor is Wicca "exclusively a religion in the modern sense because witchcraft dates from that early time when religion, theater, art, philosophy, science, and magic were all part of the same package." The origins of Wicca, whether or not it is indeed continuous, could be as much as 6,000 years in the past.
The Craft is" monotheistic" (all according to Weinstein) because it is based on underlying belief in "one energy source of the universe." That is, there is a concept of a prime deity, although we polarize that deity into male and female aspects. Not all Wiccans, I must add, believe in a prime source of all life; in fact some are atheist). Therefore, it is Pagan because of the acknowledgment of two primary aspects of deity: female and male. (Weinstein)
On the other hand Wicca is polytheistic as well "because it affirms that the one Power manifests in every life form all human, all animal, all spirit life and all forces of nature." (Weinstein) Wiccans call upon many aspects of deity with many forms and names according to the influence needed at that time. We are able to sense the presence of deity all around us in all things. To us. God/dess is an ever-present part of our lives.
Margot Adler interviewed many Wiccans in Drawing Down the Moon, both individually and in groups. In one interview a Witch named Lady Cybele says that Wicca is "a Pagan mystery religion with a polarized deity and no personification of evil". The Covenant of The Goddess is an organization of Witches of different Traditions who have compiled some definitions or descriptions of Wicca. Wicca (according to COG) is a religion whose practitioners (among other beliefs) 1) Worship the Goddess, and 2) Are bound by craft law -- not the same in all traditions.
Ethics: the Laws of Wicca
Although there are indeed many traditions of Wicca, Wiccans have one ethic in common "An' it harm none, do what thou wilt." Wicca has no concept of sin per se, but it does have a strong system of ethics -- the individual laws may vary slightly from tradition to tradition. These ethics are based in a kinship with all things and beings, We believe that we must weigh our actions in relation to the good of all as far as we are able to, not just to others in our group..
Raymond Buckland, in his book Complete Book of Witchcraft, lists a set of "Principles of Wiccan Belief" adopted by the now disbanded Council of American Witches. Some of these principles further describe the religion of Wicca. These are as follows
Gerald Gardner, to many the father of modern Witchcraft states in The Meaning of Witchcraft, "it must be understood that Witchcraft is a religion. It's God is the Horned God of hunting," death and magic who rules over the Afterworld .... where he welcomes the dead and assigns them their places; where they prepared according to their merits and wisdom, for rebirth into a new body on this earth, for which they will be made ready by the love and power of the Goddess, the Great Mother "who gives rebirth and transmutation, and love on this earth, and in whose honor and by means of ritual the necessary power is raised to enable this to be done." (p.26)
In The Spiral Dance, Starhawk describes Wicca as "a religion, perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West, and predates Christianity, Judaism, Buddism and Hinduism." It is "more in spirit to Native American Traditions or arctic shamanism." It has "no dogma or set of beliefs." And she states that Wicca "takes its teachings from nature and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon and stars." Further, she states that Wicca is "a religion of poetry not theology. The myths, legends and teachings are metaphors for the absolute reality our limited minds can never completely know."
Teachings of Wicca
But because Wicca has no theology or dogma this is not to say that it teaches nothing. Starhawk has much to say along this vein. She states that Wicca teaches "love for life in all its forms," and further that, "while the craft recognizes that life feeds on life and that we must kill (plants, food animals) in order to survive, life is never taken needlessly, never squandered or wasted". We can extrapolate this to mean not only life in general but specifically our own lives as well.
Starhawk also believes, along with many other Wiccans that we are in fact stewards of life on the earth and perhaps beyond. "Serving the life force means working to preserve the diversity of natural life, to prevent the poisoning of the environment, and the destruction of species-"
What Wicca Is Not
I have gathered a lot of information here and we still don't have a pinned down definition of what Wicca is. Here I also want to state what Wicca is not. Many people equate Wiccan Witchcraft (and that's the only one I know anything about) with Satanism and further with antisocial practices. (Antisocial meaning bringing harm to others.) I have heard it described as a cult (even by Gerald Gardner).
First, to address the label of a "cult" According to sociological definition, a cult is a religion based on the teachings of a charismatic leader. By this definition Christianity is more of a cult than Wicca. Many Wiccans work in groups and some of these might be cults. However, the majority of Wiccans are so highly individualistic that they can hardly agree on the time of day (in a friendly way of course) much less become programmed to one narrow point of view, i.e. a set of teachings put forth by one person. (Just who does he/she think he/she is anyway?)
Now to address the issue of Satanism; I suppose that any non-Christian religion might be so labeled according to some members of the Christian faith. If one takes a broader point of view, Satanism is the worship of a specific entity; the Judeo-Christian God's archenemy. Wiccans and Pagans do not believe in Satan or any personification of evil. We believe that nothing in nature is, of itself, evil. Many Wiccans believe that what evil there is caused by man's actions, when these actions harm others. This is caused because the person does not take into account the needs of other fellow beings. All of us are responsible for our own actions and what we do returns to us via karma, threefold. If we sow good - good returns; if we sow evil - evil is our due. We art not tempted by an outside force to do evil, the potential for evil is within us and it is only when we try to separate that potential from ourselves that it can gain control. If we accept that sometimes we are selfish and that is a part of us, then we can be unselfish. So Wicca is not Satanism nor is it evil. We cannot worship what we do not believe in and we do not choose to give power to an external personification of evil.
What Wicca Is
In summation, Wicca is a nature religion the adherents of which worship a deity who is divided into male and female aspects. The adherents of Wicca attempt to attune themselves with nature and to see themselves and all life as a part of nature. The Religion does not have as a component, a personification of evil, such as the devil but; believes in personal responsibility for one's acts.
In my general description of Wicca, I have touched upon some Wiccan beliefs. Earlier I quoted Starhawk as saying that Wicca has no dogma nor set of beliefs. This means that Wicca has no strict set of beliefs that everyone agrees upon. There are beliefs held by enough practitioners of Wicca to warrant further mention and explanation. Specific beliefs vary from tradition to tradition and person to person.
I have emphasized the belief in a polarized (divided into male/female) deity in the religion of Wicca. Most Wiccans do believe in a divinity although there are some that are actually atheist. The God is the Lord of animals, Lord of Death and beyond."(Gardner) He is the "initiating life force, the essential phallic creative energy in all men and women." (Weinstein) The God's visualized as a horned mm, as the sun. He is the energy and wildness of the universe.
The Goddess is the personification of nature, the Morn. the Earth, or both. She is conceived of as the triple Goddess in her aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone and we look for her attributes around us and within us. According to Starhawk, "The Goddess does not rule the world; she is the world." She is "the primary symbol for 'that which cannot be told'."
Whether or not the God and Goddess are viewed as "real", "the concept of the God or Goddess, that is personification of the gods, is the means to make contact with divine reality." (Weinstein) And it is noteworthy that deity, as nature, is in all life, all of the world seen and unseen, including being manifest within each person. So to contact the deity, He/She must be awakened within oneself. This means that Goddess is always with and all around each being, Our Gods are very much a part of our everyday lives.
Life After Death According to Many Wiccans
I have also discussed the concept of karma and so skimmed the surface of Wiccan beliefs of the afterlife. Again I must say most Wiccans believe in reincarnation and the birth-death-rebirth cycle. I think Starhawk best sums up this concept in The Spiral Dance.
"Existence is sustained by the on-off pulse, the alternating current of the two forces m perfect balance. Unchecked, the life force is cancer, unbridled, the death force is war and genocide. Together, they hold each other in the harmony that sustains life, in the perfect orbit that can be seen in the changing cycle of the seasons, in the ecological balance of the natural world, and in the progression of human life from birth through fulfillment, decline, and death--and then to rebirth."
Death is not an end; it is a stage in the cycle that leads to rebirth. After death, the human soul is said to rest in Summerland, " the Laid of Eternal Youth, where it is refreshed, grows young, and is made ready to be born again. Rebirth is not considered to be condemnation to an endless, dreary round of suffering, as in eastern religions. Instead, it is seen as the great Gift of the Goddess, who is manifest in the physical world. Life and the world are not separated from Godhead: they are immanent divinity.
Witchcraft does not maintain, like the First Truth of Buddhism, that "All life is suffering." On the contrary, life is a thing of wonder. The Buddha is said to have gained (the) insight after his encounter with old age, disease and death. To the Craft, old age is a natural and highly valued part of the cycle of life, the time of greater wisdom and understanding. Disease of course, causes misery; but it is not something to be inevitably suffered. The practice of the Craft was always connected with the healing arts, with herbalism and midwifery. Nor is death fearful: it is simply the dissolution of the physical form that allows the spirit to prepare for a new life. Suffering certainty exists in life -- it is a part of learning. But escape from the Wheel of Birth and Death is not the optimal cure.... When suffering a natural part of the cycle of birth and decay, it is relieved by understanding and acceptance; by a willing giving over to both the dark and the light in turn.
"Sin" and Wicca
Please note that nowhere in this discussion thus far is any mention of "sin." Sin is not a concept relevant to the religion of Wicca. Wiccans have ethics not commandments. Of these the most important is "An' it harm none, do what thou wilt": which I have previously mentioned. Really, if this ethic is examined closely, I believe that it covers all situations. Of course it is impossible not to harm something or someone during our lives, but as long as we strive for the best outcome for all concerned, we will have done our best to balance our needs with those of the rest of the world. In summation of this point although Wiccan ethics are many and too varied to discuss them in detail; I have briefly discussed the most basic one.
Structure of Wicca
Now I want to talk about how Wicca is structured. The basic practice of Wiccan worship and practice is the Ritual. Ritual is the means by which we accomplish change in our lives, ourselves, and hi our work. A ritual is a play, a structure in which we focus our energies and alter our awareness in order to facilitate change. The purpose of ritual is not only worship; but growth and the ability to be balanced and happy in our lives. In ritual we consciously alter our perceptions so that we can find new paths for ourselves. Ritual in the form of Rites of Passage help us to grow into life changes and to cope with and acknowledged changes.
Wiccans work in groups, called covens, or alone. Witches that work alone are called solitaries. This term is self-explanatory. Solitary Witches work alone out of choice or because a group is not available.
The group that Witches work in is most often called a coven. The coven has advantages and disadvantages. If a coven has the right group of people it is a marvelous entity. According to Starhawk, (Spiral Dance p. 35) 'the coven is a Witch's support group, consciousness raising group, psychic study center, clergy training program, college of mysteries, surrogate clan Ö and religion congregation all rolled into one." Covens have personalities of their own." A coven is "the training ground in which each member develops his/her personal power." So a coven is not simply a group of people who work magic, It is a group of people who are very close together in spirit who help each other to grow -- ideally.
Coven structure varies. The majority of covens have a leader or leaders. Leadership may be elected. There is a rotating leadership in some covens. In my own coven leadership is invested in a High Priestess She has final veto power over all coven matters but all coven members are expected to contribute and assume some leadership functions at times. Our learning is geared towards how to do ritual, how to teach the craft and how to lead a group. Our High Priestess is very ñ adept at guiding the coven members toward these events. We have a fairly formally structured hierarchy which works well for us. Other covens may have either more or less structured hierarchy. I know of a group in Atlanta who work together but who are so anti-structure that they don't call themselves a coven although they always circle together for the Sabbats. Coven structures and purposes can vary greatly with the groups needs.
There can be instances in which a coven can have a negative side. Some leaders can develop what my HP calls "The Witch Queen of the Universe" attitude. I believe that this is an actual syndrome. Small doses of this syndrome are tolerable and all covens and individuals are disposed to it at some time - OK just so long as one touches earth again. However a severe case translates into a severely authoritarian coven which can stunt the growth of the coven members. The trick is to never take things too seriously or believe that a group or individual has all the answers.
Origins of Modern Wicca
Here! Want to briefly examine the origins of modem Wicca. In 1951 in England, the old laws against the practice of Witchcraft were repealed. During this period of time a man named Gerald Gardner became interested in the Craft. Here it as difficult to separate legend from actual fact. He became a Witch by studying with an actual existing coven and decided to go public with the information. Some people believe he created or recreated the Practice of Wicca. Whichever is true is not the most important question to most modern Wiccans. Wicca has spread and grown from that time to a viable, growing religion which has many traditions and adherents. We do trace some of our practices and beliefs from very ancient times and whether these were actually passed down or if someone researched than from a book doesn't matter-- they work for us. So for all practical purposes in all its forms is a revival of the old pagan worship of Europe. (See Valiente, The Rebirth of Witchcraft.)
Throughout this discussion I have mentioned traditions of Wicca. A tradition is similar to a denomination of Christianity. Traditions are similar in overall circle structure but may differ in specific circle structure, names used for the deities and spirits for example. Traditions may differ in certain rituals used for certain purposes. The path of leaning for newcomers may differ, some traditions use a system of degrees where certain information is given at certain levels so that a degree implies a certain level of information.
A good overview of various traditions may be found in Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, pp. 225 228, therefore I will limit descriptions of traditions to the NorthWind Tradition, which is my own. NorthWind is a teaching group, that is the primary purpose of the tradition is to train individuals in the NorthWind Tradition and includes training in general Wicca and assorted occult studies a well. The Tradition is eclectic, that is it draws from many sources and we do incorporate aspects of American Indian traditions including some shamanism. The purpose of our focus is to train individuals for roles in the Priest/esshood of Wicca in order to fill the great need for such individuals. The scope of such roles includes teaching, leading/creating ritual, counseling, etc.
At this point I also want to mention that there are other pagan paths or religions besides Wicca. Although I will not go into these here, I want to mention them. These paths include Druidism and American Indian Traditions' as the most visible all around.
Finally, I want to discuss how an individual studies Wicca. There are several approaches to this study: reading books, joining a coven or finding a teacher are all acceptable ways to study Wicca.
Before deciding to study Wicca as a serious undertaking, one must decide if that is indeed one's path. Wicca is one path of many and is not appropriate for every individual. Wicca is a serious study and demands great commitment from the aspirant. Although it is acceptable to be a peripheral participant at gatherings; to be a true practitioner and to be initiated, the individual must undergo serious study. And even people who are serious at the onset may find, in time, that Wicca is not for them. The beginning student should have the intention of avoiding a frivolous attitude towards his or her studies.
But if an individual does hear the invitation of the Goddess and decides that Wicca is his/her true path, he/she must be aware that this study will change his/her ways of thinking.
The Charge of the Goddess
The following is about the closest thing that Wiccans have to "scripture" and it has just about as many versions as there are Wiccan groups. In most groups, all students are required to memorize this Charge in full. It is well to make yourself very familiar to it if for no other reason than because it is a very important part of Wiccan language.
The Charge evidently existed in some form in Gardner's original group and the version(s) most often heard owe their language, at the very least, to Doreen Valiente.
Hear now the charge of the Goddess
Whenever you have need of anything, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me who is Queen of all the Wise. You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites. Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth. For My law is love unto all beings. Mine is the secret that opens upon the door of youth, and Mine is the cup of wine of life that is the Cauldron of Cerridwen that is the holy grail of immortality. I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before. Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.
Hear the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe:
I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters, I call upon your soul to arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of nature that gives life to the universe. From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return. Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold ñ all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you. And you who seek to know Me. Know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.
Examining the Charge
Let's look at this material a little more closely. It opens with the individual filling the role of High Priest calling the ritual participants to listen to the Goddess. In most versions, a collection of Goddess names is recited here. Since several of the Goddesses so named are famous for not getting along with each other, it is perhaps best to omit that fragment.
Gathering "once in the month" is not an onerous religious duty and most groups actually meet more often (not counting the eight sabbats or high holidays). The words, "assemble in some secret place" can be seen two ways. Firstly, until recently, a secret as in "unknown" and "difficult for the authorities to find" was necessary for preservation of life and health. Secret also has the meaning of sacred and set aside and these days that often is the true interpretation.
The phrase, "and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites" raises a lot of questions. Highly traditional groups who invariable practice sky clad ritual (sky clad is the Wiccan term for not having any clothes on) say that this was ordered so that differences in the value of participants clothing should not affect the basic democracy of the circle. I have a couple of comments to make on that! Firstly, that lets differences of age and endowment affect the interaction of the participants, a far more difficult to ignore hierarchy. Secondly, since when is a ritual circle a democracy?
Grey Cat attributes this addition to Gerald Gardner who was also a Naturist (what we call a Nudist). Since the very first thing done to a prisoner is to strip him/her naked so s/he feels helpless and exposed, the psychology expressed here is extremely faulty. Considering the usual climate of the English countryside, there can have been relatively few sky-clad rituals held there.
On the other hand, if a group wants to have naked rites, and these are not used as an aid to seduction, rape or other excess, it's strictly a "do as thou wilt" situation. No one should ever allow him/herself to be coerced into nude ritual if he/she is uncomfortable with it.
The last thing needing comment in the first half of the charge is the concept that making Ö love in Her presence should be counted as worship. We discuss the "Great Rite" in some detail later in the classes. It is enough here to say that while this is entirely true, not all sex in a circle is worship!
In the second paragraph of the Charge is the part I (Grey Cat) like best: "Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you." I love the inclusion of these contrasting pairs which assert that this is a religion with room for all of human emotion. Let me particularly commend to you to cultivate your mirth as seriously as you do your reverence!
The Third Face of Deity
In the foregoing material, Brigit introduced the concepts of divinity personified as male and female. In NorthWind we also personify the deity as "Community". Community is a much more difficult idea to communicate than God and goddess. In the usual NorthWind invocation of Community, it is termed "the Stone People, the community of worshiper of Mother Earth and Father Sky". But there is a lot more to it than that and your teacher will be discussing this concept with you as your studies progress.
The Community, at it's most basic level of understanding, is the "us" gathered in circle at a particular moment. But the concept reaches out to become the "us" that are gathered at other circles which are also celebrating this moon, this sabbat. And spreading further, it embraces all who in the past, recent and distant, so gathered to honor the powers. And tucked into this concept troop such entities as the Wise Ones, the teachers of the teachers of man, the spirits of wind and wave, plant and mineral.
When a circle is cast, it exists in the "place between the worlds" and all circles share the same center, the same boundaries. All circles touch; all circles are of the one circle. And all in the circles of circles are standing there together, side by side.
Further Comments from Grey Cat
Brigit discusses the views of deity as expressed by the majority of Wiccan Traditions. NorthWind adds to the Dual concept of "God" and "Goddess" a third concept that we call "Community".
"Community" is a more difficult idea to explain than that of the male and female polarities expressed in God and Goddess. Community, in the third NorthWind invocation is termed "the Stone People, the community of the worshipers of Mother Earth and Father Sky". I see this facet of Community as the shadows which gather around a ritual held on the days of the Sabbats, the Wiccan "High Holy Days". These shadows are of people all over the world -gathered on that day, in circles for " the celebration of the turning of the wheel of life and death. When a Wiccan circle is cast, it exists between the worlds, this circle is superimposed over all the others celebrated that day for that reason. They are all in the same place. And everyone in all those circles is standing side by side.
The concept of Community does riot stop here as it may also include entities who speak to some of us and tell us things we ask to know. It extends to the feeling some have that, somewhere hidden away, is a secret group of special humans who have learned the secret of extended lift and who's work is to be sure that we know the right questions.
Copyright 1985, 1999, NorthWind Tradition
Books Cited in this Class
(All these books are considered worthwhile reading even if they are not assigned to you.)
Weinstein, Marion: Positive Magic
Adler, Margot: Drawing Down the Moon: Beacon Press; Boston; 1979, 1986
Buckland, Raymond; Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft; Lllewellyn Publications, St. Paul; 1987
Gardner, Gerald; The Meaning of Witchcraft.
Starhawk; The Spiral Dance; Harper & Row; San Francisco; 1979
Valiente, Doreen; The Rebirth of Witchcraft; Phoenix Publishing Inc.; Custer, WA; 1989
Note: Most of these books are listed on Grey Cat's Website. You may find copies on Amazon.com.