Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Lines & Lineages, Responsibility & Teaching

Last year a young man approached me at a sabbat and told me he was "of my line."  Huh?  I didn't know I had a line.  Then he told me he'd recently been initiated and one of his initiators was an initiate of one of my initiates.  My initiate had been a student of mine (and of others) for some years before any oaths were sworn. 

This incident brings up lots of questions, especially since it arises from a tradition (Reclaiming) that requires no initiation in order for people to participate as fully and completely, prominently and authoritatively (teaching, public priest/essing, et al.) as they choose.  An obvious concern in this scenario is accountability -- to students, to community, to tradition.  Another is whether, or how, one can assume a shared knowledge and capability.  Those are questions for another rumination; for now, let's stick with lines and lineage.

What do we mean by lineage?  Why is it important to us?  Or to those of us who may think it is important?  Or to anyone?

Does a lineage give us credibility?  

On the practical side, does a lineage imply a certain level of competency?  Does it imply that all of a particular line share common teachings?

Does it imply all share common ritual forms and/or common sacred technologies?

On the ethical side, does claiming a particular lineage imply any kind of responsibility or one's forebears?  Or accountability for one's conduct, either "upline" or to a tradition in general or to the Craft?

On the spirito-magical side, does a lineage assume a shared theology?

Do those of a shared line also share a cosmology?  Do they share common lore?

Does it carry with it the assumption of a shared deity or set of deities?

Does it assume a particular ethnic or historical identity?

On the human side, do "downline" initiates owe any allegiance or accountability to those of their "upline"?  Does being "downline" from an individual imply the approval, backing or championship of that forebear?

Do those of a particular line have anything in common at all?

I know that other religious traditions, Pagan or otherwise, have considered many of these questions.  They have articulated for themselves just what is expected of those who claim identity with, or membership in, the particular tradition.  They often have a credo of some kind as well.  For instance, Wiccans have the Ordains and the Rede.  To be fair, Reclaiming does have one statement, its Principles of Unity.1  For people in those situations, this contemplation is moot.

However, we Pagans are a new religious movement ("NRM")2  We are still very much in the process of defining ourselves.  So I think there are other Pagans besides myself who consider this topic worth exploring.

Then there is the matter of one's assumptions about what a lineage means versus the reality of what it may mean.  I have some ideals.  I doubt they're universally shared, or even widely shared.  Maybe some have never even considered these questions even if they have undergone some kind of initiation process and sworn an oath.

In future blogs I'd like to explore some of the questions proffered here.  In the meantime, I invite comments.


1.  This document has recently (2012) been changed; however, not everyone is comfortable using the newer version. Although I have provided a link to the newer one because that's the one for which there is a link, I am speaking only of the original 1997 iteration.

2.  In the field of religious studies, a new religious movement (NRM) is one that fewer than 200 years old.  Examples are LDS (Mormonism), Brahma Kumaris, Branch Davidian, Religious Science, and Scientology.  Although contemporary Pagan religions draw upon one or several ancient heritages, none can be proven to have come down in a unbroken line from antiquity.  Thus, Paganism falls in the category of NRM.  That does not imply any lack of authority and authenticity, only age.


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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Monday, 21 January 2013

    Most teachers offer the answers, the wise ones simply ask the right questions. And you are asking the right questions.

    I think the primary use of lineage has been for the purpose of credibility and validation. Which I don't necessarily feel that is a bad thing, however it usually perpetuates an elitist idea that traditions of practices without an established lineage are not credible and invalid.

    I feel the primary purpose of lineage should be to transfer the beliefs and practices (including cosmology and theology) of a tradition from one individual to another, similar to concept of apostolic succession.

    I strongly believe lineages should inherently emphasize accountability and responsibility of those charged with the ability to perpetuate a tradition through a lineage, whether it be through formal initiation or informal conferral.

  • Ro Reyburn
    Ro Reyburn Tuesday, 22 January 2013

    I guess that I have to opt for a [i]functional[i] , for lack of a better word, definition. Lineage, to me, is the line of connections back through time to my heathen ancestors. It is one of the first works of a stav carrier to re-establish the connections through which we access the familial orlogs. From both sides of the family. Since orlog is familial, the connections require repair wherever there are breaks between generations due to changes of belief, or rejection of individuals. Seithwork is required to reconnect themselves to the line of ancestors to the family orlog. Until this is done, the Seithworker is dependent on their personal magn, after... Well, then the learning starts.

  • Evylyn Rose
    Evylyn Rose Monday, 02 December 2013

    Just wanted to share a quick, friendly message that the URL for the Ordains linked to in this article has changed and can now be found at http://www.moonlightmessages.com/Theo/ordains.html

    You bring up some wonderful thought-provoking questions regarding initiation in Pagan paths. Personally, I find that initiation into particular traditions is not necessary, but can be powerful experiences for those who pursue them. They are certainly a worthwhile tradition to incorporate into one's path and provide insight into their educational (in terms of specific beliefs and values) background.

    However, when too much emphasis is placed on initiations, how, by whom, what origins, etc., bickering and negative judgments develop. It reminds me of baptisms in Christian traditions. Some denominations view any baptisms as positive, whereas others view only baptism within their specific denomination as official and baptisms in others as somehow inferior or even damaging somehow.

    Back in my teen years, I never understood the latter stance. I had been baptized as a Catholic when I was a newborn and visited various churches of different denominations. It was the intent and passion of those being baptized that made the difference, not the denomination in which it was performed. I believe initiations in Pagan traditions should have the same, non-judgmental and spirituality-focused approach.

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