|Posted on May 8, 2022 at 4:45 PM|
“When is a Witch not a Witch,” wrote Robert Cochrane (aka Roy Bowers) in the 1960’s, “when he or she is a pagan”? Maxine Sanders also claimed that she was not a pagan at a conference in 2000. Other longstanding Witches have also stood up and claimed that Witches are different to Pagans. What is it that they mean, what is the difference between a Witch and a Pagan?
Initiatory Witchcraft is the mystical side of paganism. With this in mind Mystery traditions seek to give the initiate direct experience of the Divine; they give an awareness of connectedness, their place within the wider unfolding patterns of Wyrd. Within mystery traditions there is no separation between Nature, Humanity and the Divine (we are using the words Divine, Divinity and Numinous as adjectives and abstract nouns rather than as simple denoting nouns). All is connected; all is one- the essence of the mystical experience. If nature is experienced as numinous and we are equating numinous experience with Divinity; this suggests that Divinity is not just the nice bits of nature but all of it. Training in mystical traditions seeks to give and open up the initiate to the mystical experience, that realisation of ecstasy, of non-separation, of connectedness, transcendental experience, and so called ‘cosmic consciousness’. It is “The Divine in which we move and have our being”, to quote Paul Tillich. The experience can never be described directly, if you can it was not a mystical experience. Such experiences can only be hinted at in metaphors such as myth, ritual and symbols.
According to the 19th and early 20th century psychologist and pragmatic philosopher William James, all religions have their origins in mystical experience. It is when metaphors such as the myth and ritual become ends in themselves that religions are formed. Religions such as those in Paganism tend to perceive a separation between the Divine (in this case a noun) and humanity. As such they fulfil a transactional model, the worshipper in the child ego state and the god in the parent ego state. Pagans expect things of their Gods such as the answering of their prayers or keeping them safe. They in turn feel that they must do certain things like enacting ritual or living a moral life that will help them to earn favours from their Gods; a gift from a gift. Some pagans see their gods as friends, but still existing in a subject/object relationship. In contrast mystical traditions meet the Divine on an equal footing, as we see ourselves as part of that Divinity. The duality between subject and object disappears.
Myths, rituals and symbols are used in mystical traditions, but the initiate never forgets that they are not ends in themselves. Rather they are a set of tools, a language if you like, to help communicate the experience of the mysteries, to celebrate and re-experience them. The initiate cultivates a sense of profound meaning and relationship within themselves, and so these meanings and relationships become far more valuable than anything that is ‘externally’ imposed. The initiate is like an artist, who builds up their internal meanings to the symbols and myths, but understands that they are metaphors for the real experience. The metaphor is not the referent. They understand that the signpost to Cambridge is not Cambridge itself.
Mystical traditions often require training from a facilitator who has had experience of the mysteries. How else can the trainer show the neophyte (beginner) the road to having such experiences for themselves unless they too have experienced them? The Occult and Western Mystery Tradition are in a way reversed engineered mysticism and training in them can be a long process. Tantric and Taoist Masters look at it in terms of decades. Many in the initiatory Craft say at least two years training before initiation and even then, it still takes years to get anywhere in the Craft or in magic in general. The Mystery traditions are not quick fixes, they are lifelong processes. They require balanced personalities, as the road to the mysteries is fraught with peril and pitfalls. Magical traditions which bring the seeker to the experience of the mysteries require various skills and techniques and are best likened to an Art or a Craft than a religion.
Where Craft differs from other mystical traditions (e.g. Hermetic Qabbala), is that it builds upon a seasonal paradigm in the myths and rituals that it uses. This refers to both inner and outer nature. It deals with the mysteries of birth, life, sex and death as illustrated in the myth of the Wheel of the Year. Craft initiates do this by participating in the real world, and meeting the challenges of life. They bring the mythology to Earth and work with its pedagogical as well as mystical functions. The Western Mystery Traditions are not an escape from life; rather they underpin it, enrich it and provide paradigms to give it meaning.
The goals and aims of the Pagan religions are to worship/honour the Gods. However, the aims and goals of initiatory Witchcraft are to become God, a goal it shares with Ceremonial Magic and other forms of the Western mysteries. Therefore, I would argue that Initiatory Witchcraft is much closer to the Western Mystery Tradition than it is to paganism both ancient and modern.
It is important to remember that the initiatory Craft is a tradition of practice rather than of belief. There are no set party line beliefs in the Craft, no metaphysical position, no philosophy of reality that must be believed. But it does have myth and accompanying ever evolving ritual to which one must commit in order to gain the benefits. Interpretation of the mysteries, the myth and the rituals is down to the individual, they are subjective and no one will tell you what to believe or what they mean. That is down to your own experience.
One way that Initiatory Craft differs from Eclectic Popular Wicca is that it practises a particular mythology whereas in Eclectic Wicca the practitioner can pick and mix mythologies. The eclectic movement also often mistakes myth for metaphysics or as something to be literally believed. While there is a big pay off in eclecticism there is also a large cost. The pay-off is that the pick and mix approach to myth can produce something incredibly creative and useful. This is often how new religions are formed, and it should be said that myth should change over time if it is to fulfil all of its functions. However, the cost is that by choosing the myths we want to believe in, we run the risk of having the myths serve our ego rather than allowing the myths to transform us. In picking the myths we like (or what feels right) we may not be picking myths which are useful in helping us to make sense of life and make meaning from its inevitabilities.