Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Wicca

by Forest and Joe Butera (Rev. 1/22/02)

See also “Wicca - traditional vs. non-traditional practice in 2001”

What is “tradition”?

Webster says: “The delivery of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites, and customs from generation to generation by oral communication; Statement, opinion, or belief handed down orally from one generation to another; a long-established custom or practice that has the effect of an unwritten law.”

What is “a” tradition in Wiccan terminology?

A tradition, in Wicca, generally refers to a group of rituals, lore, spells, etc. which is kept intact from generation to generation. (A “generation” may refer to all of those initiated by a specific High Priestess. The “next generation” would be those people initiated by the initiates of that High Priestess)

The degree to which initiates may change or add to rituals varies, but generally rules within a tradition will be very rigid in order to keep the tradition intact. The first tradition of Wicca is known as “Gardnerian Wicca” which takes its name to Wicca's founder, Gerald B. Gardner. There have been a number of traditions which have spun-off of Gardner's original tradition, yet have kept the same initiatory, mystery religion structure, and stringent study requirements. All initiates of these subsequent traditions can trace their “lineage” back to Gerald Gardner. In order for a Wiccan group to be considered “traditional Wicca” this structure and lineage must be present.

How long does a tradition have to “be” a tradition before it is a tradition?

There is no set rule for this so there tends to be a lot of disagreement on this matter. Some say “three generations”, which means that neither you nor your teacher were the ones who started the tradition, but that your teacher was initiated by someone of the same tradition who was, in turn, initiated by someone of the same tradition. This is not a hard and fast rule. Many traditional Wiccan covens have spun off of other traditions by changing just a few minor practices so retain their claim to “tradition” while adopting a new tradition name. It is certainly possible to start a new “tradition”, but by definition of the word it will take years to determine whether what you do has the viability to actually continue as a traditional practice. Such new traditions, begun by those without lineage to Gardner, however, would not be considered “traditional Wicca” under the recognized definition of the term.

Is traditional Wicca an ancient, hereditary practice?

No. Modern Wicca, as designed by Gerald Gardner, may contain some elements of these older, family style, practices but the continuing value of Wicca does not depend on the antiquity of the practices. Many people try to discredit Gardner, saying that he claimed that his Wiccan rituals are identical to the older practices of witchcraft. This was never his claim. We know that Gardner gleaned elements of Wicca from many different sources, including Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn, making Wicca unlike any religion previously practiced.

How do traditions vary from each other?

By the pantheon that is followed;
By the amount of emphasis placed on the spiritual, ceremonial, magical, and mystery/enlightenment aspects of Wicca;
By its ritual structure (some are more ceremonial, others are more folk based);
By the type of degree system;
By how the tradition passed down to subsequent generations.
By whether it is open to all genders or limited to a specific gender or genders;
By the degree of secrecy members are expected to maintain;
By the type and amount of information handed down in written or oral form.

What is non-traditional Wicca?

At one point in time the only type of Wicca being practiced was traditional Wicca. However once books on Wicca became available many self-taught Wiccans began to appear. It is not possible to convey all of the traditional Wicca information in books, as much of it is oral and experiential, but with serious dedication to practice and learning Wicca can be enjoyed by anyone who cares to make it their lifestyle.

Wicca can be practiced in an infinite number of ways, and some individuals and groups seem to be determined to try them all! That is a good way to find out which methods are right for you. Non- traditional groups may still have rigid rules but do tend to more flexible and open to change than traditional covens.

They may follow a single pantheon, or a variety of pantheons, either in turn or all at once.
There may be a permanent leader, or all or part of the group may take turns leading Circles.
The leaders may make all the decisions for the group, or there may be voting.
The group may write all or most of their own rituals or use those found in books.
The group may or may not have a degree system.
The group may meet only for Circles, hold instructional classes or both.

Some characteristics of traditional Wicca

Traditional Wiccans do not share spells or magic techniques with people they do not know.
They do not recruit students or members for their covens.
All or most rituals are open to members only.
Traditional Wiccans do not tend to talk about their path unless asked specific questions by sincere inquirers. See these two pages on secrecy and confidentiality in the craft by Judy Harrow and Margarian Bridger.

Solitary practice

Regardless of whether or not you work with a group, you can always work as a solitary. There will be times when you will need to be able to do magical work, and often these do not correspond to next meeting of the group with which you are working. Therefore, you will need to have the confidence to make necessary decisions (both ethical and magical) and to perform the work. This comes with practice and experience.

We believe that the best group members are those who are confident with solitary practice. If you have any question that the work you do on your own could conflict with the workings of a group talk to the leader of the group. If you feel unreasonable constraints are being placed on you regarding your personal practice then perhaps you are in the wrong group.

There are some traditional covens which discourage solitary rituals and place all emphasis on coven work.

How do you decide what type of craft practice is right for you?

You should never look to join a group because it is the only one in town. Conduct research with a clear set of criteria as to what you are looking for. There are many links to websites run by traditional Covens on our “Contacts” page. There are a number of questions you need to ask yourself, and then discuss with the group you are considering working with:

Do you have a particular pantheon which you work with exclusively?
Are you still exploring various types of ritual working and would like to continue experiencing a variety of methods?
If mystery/enlightenment progress is important to you is this guidance provided by the group?
Do you have an objection to working skyclad?
Do you have an objection to using alcohol or drugs?
How do you feel about sex and gender issues?
How much time, energy and money do you have to put into your craft education?
Do you have a problem with authority?
How well do you function in a group setting?
Do you have to change any fundamental part of yourself in order to conform the group?

If you feel strongly about any of these issues, and are unready or unwilling to change, be sure to let the prospective group know, and be ready to understand and accept their decision if they say they are not the right group for you. See our “How to find a teacher or coven” page for further information.

Do not make the decision to join a group lightly, but never stop evaluating whether you are on the right path. When working with a group it should feel like you are all walking the same path. If and when you find a direction that better suits your needs, the group should be happy for you. No ethical group leaders should attempt to keep a student against his or her will or make them feel guilty for leaving.

You should always be looking to expand your knowledge. Read any and all books on the craft (just be sure to remember that a book may only represent the author's perception of the issue and may include errors passed on from other authors). Always question statements that make no sense to you. Read the footnotes and references and be suspicious when none are to be found.

Traditional, Non-Traditional or Solitary: Is one better than the others?

No. However, it is likely that you are better suited to a particular one at this time in your life. If you choose to work with a group, the most important thing you should look for is honesty. If you feel that answers to your questions are evasive be wary. Groups may have some legitimate secrets, but they should be open with you in regard to the history of the group, the experience of the teachers, and what is expected of you as a student.

This introduction to “The Heart of Wicca” by the late Ellen Cannon Reed focuses on the differences often found between traditional craft and non-traditional craft. This is such an essential book for anyone interested in traditional Wicca that it is required of all students studying Blue Moon Wicca.

Creating your own tradition

All traditions had to start somewhere. Why not create your own? It can certainly be done, but may be much more difficult than you expect. The “traditional” number of members for a coven is 13. You may suppose this is just because its a really nifty number. Actually, the chance of getting 13 people to all agree on every little detail of the structure of a tradition is so slim, that many covens find it difficult or impossible to maintain a core group of dedicated people in that amount. This accounts for the popularity of non-traditional covens and solitary practice.

If you are determined to start your own tradition be sure to put in writing everything you can think of regarding the structure and purpose of your group. This helps alleviate disputes when they arise. Talk with leaders of as many traditional covens as you can. Most will be happy to give you a few pointers on things to consider but don't expect them to design your tradition for you. If you do decide to create your own tradition, please understand that the term “traditional Wicca”, and sometimes stated more specifically as ”British Traditional Wicca” do refer to specific types of practice which includes the lineage to Gerald Gardner, and you will be respected as “Wiccan” as long as you have taken the trouble to learn the history of Wicca and the meaning of tradition.

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