Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Is There Still A Need For Secrecy?
(Artwork by Hannie Sarris).
"Keep this book in your own hand of write. Let brothers and Sisters copy what they will, but never let this book out of your hands, and never keep the writings of another, for if it be found in their hand of write, they may well be taken and tortured. Each should guard his own writings and destroy them whenever danger threatens. Learn as much as you may by heart, and when the danger is past, rewrite your book."
Gerald B. Gardner, Bok Of Ye Art Magical, (the Gardnerian Book Of Shadows)
It's funny: I've thought about writing a blog on secrecy in the Craft for about a week now. Then today on Facebook, one of my Pagan contacts sent me this article, asking my opinion. It was a sign from my Gods... "write the dam blog already!" (Yes, my Gods really speak to me like that). The article she sent me discusses the rejection of traditional Wicca and other older systems by younger Pagans:
"The big name initiatory traditions are no longer the be all end all of witchcraft. Younger generations of witches are putting less and less importance on lineage and formal initiation choosing personal gnosis, mysticism, direct ecstatic experience, and spirit initiation over the customs of previous generations. Many of them would rather follow a personalized spiritual practice than follow the dogma of a set tradition. Many of them do not agree with the hierarchical structure of witchcraft covens and the many interpersonal problems it can create."
And even though I am a staunch Wiccan, I understand this. In fact while discussing ideas for what I'm writing here with my beautiful, adorable, super-brilliant girlfriend Lauren, she said to me "if you had had the Internet back in the early '80s, would you have stayed with Blue Star? If it was as easy then as it is now to find people and opportunities, would you have gone exploring?" And while I love traditional Wicca, I had to admit the options might have been interesting.
One of the hallmarks of traditional Wicca and other codified traditions is the insistence on secrecy. One takes vows at initiation, and these include strict vows to "keep silent." One is never to speak of what goes on in Circle outside of Circle (it's a lot like Fight Club, except we get naked). Secrecy is constantly stressed. One must have a password to enter the Circle, and the password of each initiatory degree is revealed only when one reaches that degree. The initiations and inner court workings are closely guarded from non-initiates. In the old days, people had "Pagan names" not because they sounded cool, but to hide their identity from the rest of the world (I think this is often still true). I once knew a couple who were so secretive, their children did not know they were Pagan, and were sent to a Christian school.
In the 1980s, the insistence on secrecy was taken severely to task by the "other" faction of Pagans: when the Pagan festival movement began in the late '70s, it brought together the oath-bound Wiccans and Witches with the Dianic Feminist Witches. There was a lot of friction back then, let me tell you. Feminist thought of the time was that secrets were imposed by those who abuse power. If a man abused his wife or his child, he warned her not to tell anyone, or there would be punishment. Rapists warned their victims to keep the rape a secret. Dianic witches saw the oath-bound rites of Wiccans, and suspected abuse.
In the wake of the mix of these two opposite streams of thought, a new Paganism arose. The children of '90s and Millennial Paganism wanted different things than their elders had wanted. They wanted freedom. They had books to learn from, which their elders did not. They had open Pagan events to attend, where they could hear lecturers and speak with authors. Their elders did not have these. Typical of the attitude of younger Pagans is Nicole Graf, being interviewed by the Phillipsown dot info news source:
"One of the reasons Graf wanted to break from more structured forms of Wicca was her desire for more openness, because traditional Wiccans keep many things secret except to those who are initiated. “Obviously I’m not asking to be anonymous,” she noted. “I don’t like to hide things; I like to share information. I sort of have an outlook that people are willing to communicate and debate things and agree to disagree, especially when superstitious beliefs come out like, ‘Oh you’re sacrificing things, and you’re really about Satan worship.’ I don’t know how to explain that I’m not, if I’m in a group that says, ‘Shh, you can’t talk about it.’”
So I think in light of the way Paganism is evolving and changing, it's important to ask: why do Wiccans and related traditions keep their information secret?
In general, there are two sets of reasons: protection, and magical practice.
Gerald Gardner, who introduced modern Paganism to the English speaking world in 1954 with his book Witchcraft Today (the very first book ever written about Witchcraft by a practicing Witch), was very concerned about keeping the Craft from those who would seek to persecute and destroy us:
"Ever remember if tempted to admit or boast of belonging to the cult you be endangering your brothers, for though now the fires of persecution may have died down, who knows when they may be revived? Many priests have knowledge of our secrets, and they well know that, though much religious bigotry has calmed down, many people would wish to join our cult. And if the truth were known of its joys, the Churches would lose power, so if we take many recruits, we may loose the fires of persecution against us a gain. So ever keep the secrets." (From Bok Of Ye Art Magical)
This is as true today as it was in 1954. One need only look at the attitude of many Christians toward us, such as this Internet article on keeping teens from the "hidden traps of Wicca." In fact today the persecution is more insidious: as this article shows, we're not being accused of kissing the tushy of goats and of burning children; the Christians know exactly what we do. The article even mentions the Wiccan Rede's injunction to "harm none." But even while they know what we do, they are insistent that we are Godless, and their children must be stopped from seeking us out.
The other reason Gardner and his followers stressed secrecy was their connection to Ceremonial Magical orders that believe secrecy is a necessary component of magical working. Orders like the Golden Dawn and the OTO believe that one of the four most important rules, or posterns, of magical practice is to "keep silence," not allowing the energy of a magical working to be dispersed by bragging, babbling or extolling one's work. One aspect of this is humility: the magician does not tell others about her or his powers: these are used for the Great Work, not to impress others. It is also a belief that magicians are seen by the world as foolish: we keep silence to avoid ridicule, which is distracting. it distracts us from our magical practice. Simply put, this is a reason Hassidic Jews keep to themselves: why deal with the distraction of the non-Jewish world when one's focus should be on the Torah? (The same may be said for the Amish).
But the truth is, secrecy became a pitfall of the Wiccan coven structure. Leaders (or would-be leaders) with nothing to teach used secrecy to conceal their lack of knowledge. ("That's an inner court secret" is a way of saying "I don't know, but I'll never tell you I don't know!"). Other "leaders" did as the Dianics suspected: covered up abuse of power by insisting on secrecy. I know of a group who swears new members to secrecy as they arrive, because they will be asked to perform sexual favors for the Priest. The reputation of the Wiccan coven structure was severely compromised by these types of abuses, and those coming into Paganism more recently wanted nothing to do with the mess they perceived within oath-bound covens.
So before considering whether secrecy is still needed, let's look at what secrecy is and is not to be used for in a coven structure.
In most traditional Wiccan covens (and I use this term to include other codified traditions that may not identify as Wiccan, but are oath-bound and coven based), secrecy is used to prevent the personal information of members from leaking out. In many groups members know each other only by Pagan names; no one has anyone's legal name (in some groups only the trusted Summoner has this information). This way no one has any power to blackmail another member. This is a very real danger: I have seen people lose their children and their jobs when people found out they were Pagan. I have also seen, on occasion, "Pagans" 'convert' to Christianity, and tell all they could of practitioners: a good example of this is the case of Eric Pryor (see here and here).
Secrecy is also used to prevent members from knowing what awaits them at the next level of initiation. These traditions believe that many initiatory experiences must be met with no prior preparedness, or they will not have the impact they might. We live in a very jaded society. Preteens have seen everything on the Internet, and have a world-weary attitude. Young adults are savvy, and often feel they know more than any generation before them. Many Wiccans want to prevent this ennui in Circle, and feel that meeting the Gods should be a spontaneous experience on the part of the seeker (the Priest's and Preistess' job, of course, is to facilitate this with careful preparation). It is also believed that magic works best in a coven when it is kept in the coven: (Again, just like Fight Club with middle aged magicians). When you go talking about that working you did last night with everyone who will listen, it negates the magic. Covens are intimate. They are comprised of people willing to bare their vulnerabilities to each other. Shared secrets (that do not hurt anyone) strengthen bonds between coven members. Some of these are very innocent secrets: in one tradition, the fact that an apple cut sideways forms a star is considered an oath-bound secret. Everyone knows that, you're saying. But to have this be a special experience shared between a dozen people is very intimate (analogy: everyone knows what sex feels like, but that does not make it less intimate between people in love).
I have no patience whatsoever for a "leader" who says "I can't tell you that, it's a secret." The official policy of all Blue Star covens is 'if the student knows enough to ask the question, they deserve the answer' The answer may be "here's what I can tell you now: at your next level I can reveal more," but an answer is made. Secrecy in the coven setting is never meant to be an abuse of power. A Priestess or Priest of Wicca simply has more experience and has gained more knowledge than their students: our job is to share our knowledge and facilitate your experience, to make you a peer. Not everyone does well in learning at the hands of a teacher. We know that, and we encourage seekers to look elsewhere if what we have is not for them. So if a "leader" tells you that you cannot leave their group, or prevents you from seeing the rituals of other groups, or badmouths other groups (oh, I've seen this SO many times), run away! Run like they're a killer rabbit.
Coven secrecy should never ever ever be used to coerce sex! Ever! In fact, responsible Wiccan leaders will not have sex with coven members with whom there is no mundane relationship. Believe me, I've seen the worst, I've tried the worst, I learned lessons from the worst abuses of this type. If a "leader" requires sex from new students, get out! Especially if they instruct you to keep it a secret!
So, to return to the question posed in the title...is secrecy still necessary? In my opinion, some secrecy is. In oath bound traditions, membership should not be revealed except by choice: you protect the identities of coven members, and of any Pagan, unless they tell you they wish their identity to be public.
Is magic secretive? Well, there's tons of books on the stuff. But remember that Wicca, Ceremonial Magic and other codified traditions are oath bound. That means that members are not going to publish their secrets (and if they do, they are oath breakers. Do you respect them now?). The most intimate secrets of a Witch's coven are not in print, despite what the publisher may tell you. But one reason for this is that these secrets are learned with experience. There is an old story from the Kaballah about three rabbis who, through prayer and study, enter the Garden of Eden, the great domain of Adam Kadmah, the primal man. One rabbi, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of Eden, dies on the spot. A second rabbi, likewise overwhelmed, goes mad. The third rabbi returns to our world, but can never say what he has seen there.
Magic is all consuming. It can make you crazy if you do not know how to ground its power. If done right, it can be alienating. An old Wiccan saying is "A Witch may live among the people, but she is never one of them." Like the rabbi who can never say what he has seen, no one understands the ways we change when living the life magical, except one who has lived it. Secrecy and oath-bound codes are a way to relate only to those who "survive" the magical life.
Now I am well aware that newer Pagan thought does not agree with this. In an excellent article on Pagan secrecy, Randall Sapphire says:
"Performing rituals of worship without proper training is dangerous? We are taking about worshipping the Lord and Lady here, aren't we? Not some demon from one of the Keys of Solomon? I'm sorry, I can't buy into this "it's dangerous" line. The Lord and the Lady aren't demons out of some medieval story ready to destroy those who make the slightest mistake in a ritual"
But older codified traditions DO owe a debt of structure, magic and syllabus to older oath-bound traditions, like various Ceremonial Magical orders, who do indeed work with dangerous things. And magic is powerful! I call the four elementals into my Circle every week: I have lived through hurricanes. I can't create one: but they can! Believe me, if you don't give them due respect, things can indeed get bad! I know many who read this will pooh-pooh it. In many instances I feel Pagans regard their practice as a fantasy, or a role playing game (I'm going to write a blog about that). I've heard Pagans say "the Gods aren't real, they're simply archetypes." And every practitioner is entitled to their beliefs, so while I do not feel that way, I won't deny their perception.
So maybe that's the answer: if your practice is to perform rituals of worship to real Gods; or if you believe the Gods you draw into Circle are not real; or if you believe that energy is freely accessible to all, regardless of a standing of initiation, you probably have no reason to keep magical secrets. You may keep your practice a secret from non-Pagans, and that is a major part of Wiccan secrecy; but perhaps what you do in your ritual is out there for all to experience and share. That is a good place to be.
But if you practice an oath bound tradition that seeks to go deeper, and if you are not abusing power as a Priestess or Priest, perhaps secrecy is needed. And if you are a Millennial Pagan, who feels secrecy is outdated, I would still ask you to respect the rights of elders who practice a tradition where secrecy is observed. If not out of belief in the magic, then perhaps just out of respect and courtesy. As Sarah Anne Lawless points out in her article,
"The young mock their elders, ignorant to the battles they fought so the youth could enjoy freedom. The younger generations have forgotten the witchcraft laws that had to be repealed, the previous lack of religious rights and freedoms, the stones thrown through windows, the hateful words spewed like venom, and how hard it once was to find information on anything to do with witchcraft. They don’t know that Wicca was once seen to be as dark, dangerous, primal, mysterious, and appealing as the newer forms of witchcraft being practiced today. They weren’t alive at the time – how could they remember? So few read our history and pick elders’ brains as I love to do. It’s not bad and it’s not good, it simply is."
Some of the elders hold secrecy because it was the only way the Craft could survive until we could pass it on to the next generation, the Millennials. You have taken the torch and run with it; how you keep it is now in your hands. If you wish to show your practice to all that would see, don't let the few curmudgeons among us elders stop you. We raised you to make your own decisions. But respect the few that still hold to the old ways. There has to be room for both of us in the new Pagan era.
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