It is common in Contemporary Pagan circles to describe different Witchcraft Traditions to new comers or outsiders as akin to a denomination. The truth is further removed. No Tradition is setup in that manner; the organization is different, much more decentralized. In an effort to uncover just what a Tradition is, I am going to talk about the different aspects, benefits, possible pitfalls, and forms of membership a bit.
A Tradition, with a capital 'T’, is a collection of Covens and Solitaires that share a common group practice and all have been initiated into that group. Joining a Tradition usually occurs via a Coven, although in some forms of Contemporary Pagan Witchcraft there are methods and procedures in place for solitaire affiliation. These Solitaires plus those individuals that were once a member of a Coven but have moved away, are still members of the Tradition so long as the Tradition recognizes their Initiation into the Tradition as legitimate. I fall into this category in a manner of speaking; at least for one Tradition with which I work. My Elders, Coven-mates, and Mentor are all in other states, some as far as the opposite coast, due to my having moved. Yet, I am still involved and engage in Tradition training, regular ritual and magickal efforts, albeit from afar, and group association is mostly through the internet and phone. It is the common praxis, shared traditions with a small ‘t’, and shared experience thereof, alongside initiation into the group, that make us a Tradition.
There are of course unaffiliated Contemporary Pagan Solitaires within the stream of Witchcraft. In fact they make up the bulk of Witches, with no Coven, Tradition, or group membership. Their path is just as legitimate. They are still Witches, just a different form of Witches that do not share any common group praxis. This blog is simply a rather random discourse in Tradition mechanics as a means for critical thought; the focus upon Tradition Witches, regardless of the form, is not a denouncement of the chosen path of the unaffiliated Solitaires. The bias towards Tradition is simply because I am a practicing Traditional Witch, I write what I know, and this blog is from the lore and perspective of such; so no intended offense for not covering that angle.
Joining a Tradition is not for everyone. For that matter, not every Tradition is right for the individual though there may be one that is. Also of note, a Tradition may be right but the Coven not. Finally there is the other side of the coin, not every individual is right for a Tradition or Coven. There is a lot of discernment, on all sides, that goes into the decision for Initiation. There are, however, many reasons and benefits to Traditional practice when the individual, Coven, and Tradition are all a good fit for one another. Why all the worry about everyone being a good match?
Working in a small Coven engaging in very intimate spiritual and magickal practice takes a lot of trust. The work of a Coven gets very emotional at times; people are vulnerable. Additionally, any time someone new joins the group they must learn the praxis so as to be able to be a functioning member of the group. Training people takes a lot of time and resources. I know, having been both a student and teacher. Most training from a group takes years of weekly classes on top of a couple of rituals per month. Most forms of Contemporary Pagan Witchcraft Traditions have taboos against charging for training. For example, in British Traditional Wicca (BTW) all teaching is strictly free because by teaching the teacher is paying back the training they received for free– Paying it forward. In many Traditional Initiatory Witchcraft Traditions, those which are BTW derived, the same is also true. I honestly cannot say what the standard is within Feri Traditions (Any Feri Initiations reading this feel free to comment). Of the several forms of Tradition Witchcraft I have encountered and studied, I know of only a few that has a small fee. That fee, however, is akin to Coven dues. All of that being considered, I know of no Tradition, regardless of form, that charges after Initiation. So taking the whole free but very involved training into account alongside the intimate nature of a working Coven and throw on top of this that nearly 90% of all Seekers quit, there is good reason for discernment both by Seekers and Initiates. I personally think that the benefits are well worth it though.
I’ve already mentioned that established Traditions provide extensive training, but that is not the only benefit. For that matter, I would not even say it is the most important. Working with a Tradition provides a community and fellowship. With such there is a sense of belonging and a support network. There are many types of support given; emotional support for when life is tough, magickal support, and the general support of friends. Spiritual delving takes a toll and is not easy. In those times, the Coven and Tradition has individuals that have been there, have more experience, a different perspective to the problem, and different backgrounds. There is also magickal support which comes from a group effort in workings but also at times when the individual cannot work. I have lost count of the amount of times I have worked with other Tradition members, magickally speaking, to aide one of our own that is in a hospital and does not have the means or health at hand. Note: There is more momentum behind magick from a unified group of skilled and trained Witches than from just one. Having an agreed upon way of doing things, the praxis, when in a group makes this all easier; no reinventing the wheel at each meeting.
There is a common misconception in the rhetoric of the greater Contemporary Pagan community outside of those that have been a member of Tradition. Often the reason given for being an unaffiliated Solitaire, granted not the only reason, is due to the desire not to have anyone telling them what to believe. After all, with most being converts from orthodox religions, this is usually a sticking point behind having left there. I only know of one so called Tradition that in anyway makes an attempt to tell their membership what beliefs are correct. Most do not. All that is done, however, is for the individual to be taught a system of working for when actively working in this particular group. When in another group or at home, one’s quirks, whims, beliefs, and personal practice are all their own. The Tradition only cares about the method when gathered for that purpose, to have everyone on the same page. There is a danger though.
New Seekers have no way to honestly discern between those Traditions that are ethical and only focus on practice from those, such as the one I eluded to earlier, that try to control their membership’s beliefs, often through deceit and cult-like behavior. Traditions that do not fit in this category constantly engage in an information campaign to let potential Seekers know of these problem groups. I, myself, on occasion have had to warn someone. Not to urge them towards my own Tradition/Coven, but out of concern for them because of knowledge I have, which they are not privy to, about the group they are approaching. For example, one well known organization actively seeks to infiltrate other groups so as to spy, steal Tradition lore, and act as an inside agent during Witch Wars, they even have a manual for how to do it.
There is also the possible issue revolving around group drama. From time to time every group has its share of drama, but some more so than others. Older Traditions and established Covens have generally worked past this stage by putting policies and check and balances in place. On occasion though, a leader with a bad case of ego and control issues takes on an integral role. In an established Tradition it is the other Elders that step in to rein that individual in, but if the Coven is not part of a larger Tradition or the Tradition itself is saturated with dysfunction then problems arises. This again is all for good reason on why a Seeker should spend time in the process when thinking about joining a group.
So long as the potential pitfalls surrounding dysfunctional groups can be avoided, there are many good things about working in a Tradition. The best part is not the training, magickal momentum, or sense of belonging. Nope, none of that. The best part when such a group has been found is simply the people, and everything that entails.
“Lost in a thicket bare-foot upon a thorned path.”