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Some Differences Between Priestesses and Witches: Duties and Trials
NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Dancing the Spiral of Wicca
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Author: Rhiannon Keneally
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This is my understanding of Wicca and Witchcraft. I do not profess to be the most knowledgeable about the religion, but I had many other non-Wiccan friends from the class ask me about it and I answered as best I could. To make it easier for my non-Wiccan peers to understand and have something to grasp onto more easily, they asked that I match similar things in Wicca and Christianity. A difficult task in many ways, as they are very different, but not impossible, as the basics of most religions are similar.
A Witch. You know, the old hag standing around a cauldron brewing a poison. She has a nasty cackle and a black cat rubbing around her feet. Or maybe it’s a beautiful blonde who can’t seem to get her spells straight. No? What about the Witches that flip through a leather-bound spell book to teleport to another location to fight evil wizards and demon lords? Or the green-faced Witch that wants to steal back a pair of ruby slippers from a little girl with the help of some flying evil monkeys? Which is the correct picture of a Witch?
The magic answer to the question is none of them. Hollywood, carrying on the Christian stereotypes and superstitions of the past two millennia, has perpetuated the common image of the Witch. A Witch can be, although not all of them are, Wiccan. Wicca, which is commonly referred to as the Craft or Witchcraft, is a legitimate religion with mythology, people, rituals and tools, holidays, and the all-important Rede.
Wicca has mythology and stories. For example, many know the story of Creation from Judeo-Christian teachings, with God creating the world in 6 days and resting on the 7th. In Wicca, there are hundreds of creation myths, all with their own take on the story. Wicca, being diverse and allowing for other cultures to add and enhance the religion, has no one chosen culture, no one chosen story or mythology. All cultures are viewed as right and true in their own sense. No one is right, yet no one is wrong.
Unlike Judeo-Christianity, Wicca does not have one definite, written Word. The Bible is the Judeo-Christian Word. People within that religion can translate, argue, and interpret the Bible, but it is definite – there is no other book, and it cannot be changed. In Wicca, there is no such book. Stories and traditions were handed down by word of mouth, not written, as it was once viewed as blasphemous. Today, thousands of books and other materials are published, each taking on a different view or topic within the religion, so that everyone can learn. However, most of the traditions once only spoken have been lost or diluted. These traditions are also usually unknown, incomplete, or have several conflicting variations.
Wicca has people. If it is a legitimate religion, or if anyone believed in it at all, then of course there are people. People, in the sense here, mean there is some sort of hierarchy and a congregation or followers of some kind. In Christianity, there are cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons, with the Pope reigning over Catholics. A good percentage of those in the Christian hierarchy are male, with no female priests in Catholicism.
In comparison, every Wiccan is their own Priest or Priestess in their own right. Everyone controls their own celebrations and worshipping of the deities. Not everyone in Wicca chooses to follow that option all of the time or even some of the time, so a small hierarchy of Priests and Priestesses stands. The High Priest and Priestess take precedence, with the Priest and Priestess following afterwards.
There is no head Wiccan over all the others. In Catholicism, the Pope is the head, and all Catholics are bound to follow his word. In Wicca, there is no one like that. There are Councils of sages and wise Elders that may lead a particular path or tradition, and there are respected and recognized people within the religion everywhere, but their word does not necessarily need to be adhered to.
Wiccans, like others around the world, celebrate holidays. Many Wiccans believe that each day should be celebrated as holy and right because each day is a blessing from the deities. While that may be true, many observe eight sabbats, or major holidays, and esbats, or the smaller full Moon rituals.
The sabbats reflect the Spiral, the dance of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The seasons perfectly exemplify the Spiral, so the equinoxes and solstices make up half of the sabbats. The other half is in between the days that the seasons officially change. The sabbats are Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnassa, and Mabon.
Two holidays, Yule and Ostara, ironically fall around the time of two major Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter. Easter is the Christian New Year, representing springtime and the Resurrection of Jesus, a time of renewal. The Wiccan New Year is not Ostara, or Easter to the Christians, but Samhain, which many know as Halloween. To Wiccans death and dying, which fall and winter exemplifies, is not the end, but the beginning, which is one reason why Samhain is the New Year.
Being your own Priest or Priestess to dance and pray to the deities is cool, but a Priest and a Priestess need tools, even basic ones. In Christianity, a priest wears robes, stands at an altar, and carries and blesses the Host. Even the congregation has something, like the Bible, a prayer book, or rosary beads. In Wicca, everyone owns certain tools too. There are hundreds of different tools that anyone in Wicca can have and use at one time, but most traditions seem to agree that there are six major ones all Wiccans should have. They are the wand, the athame, the boline, the cauldron, the pentacle, and the Book of Shadows.
The wand and the athame sort of go together. Either tools are interchangeable, depending on the tradition one follows, or one can use both. The wand is not like the one in Harry Potter’s world, where one says a word or phrase and something will happen. The wand in Wicca is used to draw Circle. It is a purely ritual tool, and is not used for anything else. The athame is also a purely ritual tool, and is used for the same purpose as the wand. It is the ritual blade, which can either be a dagger or a sword. It is not used for human sacrifice, or any other sacrifice for that matter. Most are not even sharp, and some cannot be sharpened at all.
The other ritual blade is the boline. The boline is not used for drawing Circle, but for practical purposes. It is a dagger or curved blade for cutting herbs, grasses, and mushrooms. It is not for sacrificing or killing anything either. These two tools, the athame and the boline, cannot be interchanged. A boline cannot be used to draw Circle any more than an athame can be used to cut and gather herbs.
The cauldron, like the wand, is another popular tool seen used by a Witch. The cauldron is not a giant pot in which hags gather around to brew poisons and potions. A cauldron, although crones and Elders may use it, is not exclusively for them, nor is it used to brew nasty concoctions. It represents the Goddess and fertility. Many myths talk of the cauldron of plenty, a cauldron that one of the deities holds that is always full of food, and never runs out. The cauldron of ritual represents the same.
Another familiar tool is the pentacle. The pentacle is the five-pointed star that is the common symbol for Wicca. Each point represents the five elements believed by Wiccans to make up the world: spirit the top point, air the next going clockwise, earth and fire the bottom two points, and water as the last element opposite air.
The pentacle, in certain rituals, is flipped upside down, but it is not to represent the Satanist’s perversion of the symbol. The difference is that Satanists use it exclusively upside down, and make fire their important element, not spirit. The other thing to keep in mind is Satan is not a Wiccan figure or deity. Satan comes from Christianity. Therefore, all of the stories about Witches worshipping Satan and doing his works on earth are just that – a bunch of stories fabricated by people who did not know any better.
The last major tool is the Book of Shadows. It is the Wiccan’s private spell and prayer book, but it is more than a spell book. The Book of Shadows is a diary of a Wiccan’s journey: what one learns, and any poems, songs, and rituals that the person wrote. It is not supposed to be shared or shown to another during the owner’s lifetime, and it must have a special, secret place to be kept. That is why it is a Book of Shadows – there is so much secrecy concerning it.
Different arguments are made over who should write the Book of Shadows, and what to do with it after the owner dies. Within a strict coven, only the leaders of the coven, which is usually the High Priest and Priestess, can write in it and use it. Some allow for the other coven members to write something in it, but the keepers of the book are the leaders of the coven. For a solitary practitioner, one can write his or her own, of course.
When the owner of the Book dies, by tradition it is to be burned or destroyed to prevent the secrets to be passed down. In a coven, it might be burned, but many covens use it after either leader dies or leaves, as it is not written and owned by one – the whole coven owns it. In solitary practice, some feel that Wicca should be shared and told to all who wish to learn, so the Book is passed to a close family member or friend within the Craft, instead of burning it. Either way is acceptable.
Some other familiar tools that are not mentioned are the broom, the Witches’ robes and hat, and the familiar. The first tool, the broom, is obviously not used for flying. This myth is based on the taking of hallucinogens and the feeling of “flying” when high on these drugs. The broom is a ritual symbol of its exact purpose – cleaning. The broom ritually cleans out the magic dust balls and unwanted negativity.
The Witches’ robes and hat are the optional clothes that one could wear. Many Wiccans believe that one should get closer to nature, and going skyclad is the way. Skyclad is nudity for rituals. If one is not comfortable with the idea or likes wearing the robes, going skyclad is not a requirement in many traditions and covens either. Also, skyclad is not to be used just because one wants to see another naked – it is used for ritual only.
The last is the familiar. The familiar is another popular image seen with a Witch. It is not an animal or creature used to do the bidding of the Witch. A familiar is just what it implies – it is a close bond with an animal or creature that a Witch may have. There is nothing malignant about it, and no slavery is involved. The familiar does not need to be a black cat either. Some animals that may be familiars are cats, birds of any species, dogs, and horses.
With people and holidays, there needs to be rituals and celebrations. In Christianity, people keep the Mass, the biggest and most important gathering. In Wicca, there is Circle. Circle cannot be exactly matched or compared to anything known in Christianity, but the commonality that the two share here is the setting aside and usage of sacred space to commune with the deities, or deity in Christianity.
Circle is the area in which Wiccans celebrate and worship the deities. A Circle is more than a place though. It is somewhere a Wiccan feels welcome, holds special and dear to them, or feels that it is a sacred place. A Circle can be cast anywhere the Wiccan feels is right, although some, especially with rooms set aside or an outdoor grove or copse, will permanently etch, draw, or form a Circle on the floor or on the ground.
Within Circle a ritual is performed. Not everything done in a Circle has to be a ritual, nor does everything have to be done in a Circle. Circles can be drawn to mediate, pray, request something from the deities, like increased prosperity, love, protection, and creativity, or just to dance and sing to celebrate life. Rituals themselves are a form of prayer. It is an invocation to the deities to bless and help the worshippers. Rituals are also prayers for celebration. Holidays and myths are recreated and brought to life with mini-parades, art, dances, songs, food, laughter, and fun.
The results of a ritual are not made up nor are they exactly what one may think up. One cannot ask for unreasonable or unbelievable things, like a tree that grows money, but anything within reason may be granted. Continuing the example of money, a request for more of it might result in needed change found in an unexpected place, like in a jacket pocket or under a car seat, but it can also be a pay raise, a better job offer, or an unexpected promotion that includes more benefits.
With rituals, one must keep in mind free will. Like many Christian sects, Wicca believes that all people have free will. Destiny does not control one, but rather the choices made control one’s life. No one has the right to violate anyone else’s free will. This is why one must ask permission if one is to a ritual for another person. If he or she does not want this, then changing their wishes for personal reasons or because it seemed right is not all right. It violates the Rede.
In Wicca, the greatest, and most important rule, is the Rede.
It is the rule that all Wiccans can agree upon as the ultimate, and all the others are personal choice and tradition. The short version of the Rede is to do no harm to others, including yourself. The Rede has one other condition – no harm, except in self-defense. This rule, while allowing and demanding a peaceful path, also allows the ability to defend one’s self if the need ever arose.
In Christianity, the Golden Rule is the closest to the Rede. With the Golden Rule, there are conditions too, like loving your neighbor, loving God, and the Ten Commandments. The difference here though is that Christianity adds more and more conditions and rules, so that there are so many that it restricts one. In Wicca, the Rede is the only law that everyone must follow, so it allows for freedom and individuality.
In Christianity, one is judged after death by God, and placed accordingly into Hell for evil deeds, Heaven for good, or into Purgatory, the waiting place in between Heaven and Hell. In Wicca, no Hell, Heaven, or Purgatory exists as Christianity portrays, but good and evil deeds are rewarded and punished accordingly. Good deeds are repaid with bright blessings and good in that one’s life, while evil deeds are reprimanded with dark misfortune. This concept, although not believed by all in Wicca exactly, is called karma, an Eastern notion where karma, a spiritual force, rewards and punishes according to the person’s actions.
Along the same lines as karma is the Triplicity Rule, which some Wiccans also believe. The Triplicity Rule is when good deeds are rewarded with three times the blessings, while bad deeds are punished three times as hard back. This is just a reemphasis of karma, and that anything done to another has consequences.
Wicca is a real, legitimate religion and way of life for many people, with legends and myths, prayers, celebrations, and laws. It is not as popular stereotypes paint, but is followed by people of all ages, races, and cultures. Its legitimacy lies with its beliefs, rituals and prayers, celebrations and holidays, the belief in the sanctity of nature, and the respect and love of fellow brothers and sisters of all walks of life. If this is not enough of a convincing argument, the United States government and all its military branches have recognized Wicca as a valid religion, with all of the same rights also accorded to other legal religious establishments, like Christianity and Islam.
This is not to convince anyone that this is the one religion or that one needs to convert, but it is to present a strong argument that proves that Wicca is not the vile, Satan loving cult that many still believe.
Buckland, Raymond. Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft. 2nd Edition. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2006.
—. The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism. Canton: Invisible Ink, 2002.
—. Wicca for Life: The Way of the Craft from Birth to the Summerland. New York: Citadel Press, 2001.
Cunningham, Scott. Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2005.
—. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2005.
Currot, Phyllis. Witch Crafting: A Spiritual Guide to Making Magic. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Horne, Fiona, ed. Pop Goes the Witch! The Disinformation Guide to 21st Century Witchcraft. New York: The Disinformation Company, LTD, 2004.
Lantiere, Joe. The Magician's Wand: A History of Mystical Rods of Power. Oakville: Olde World Magick, 2004.
Sheba, Lady. The Books of Shadows. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2006.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Collins Publishers, 1989.
Copyright: I wrote this essay for a research paper for my composition class. My openly gay professor, who had asked for this, was more than a little enthusiastic about it, and I wanted to share this with others.
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