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Some Thoughts on Secrecy in the Pagan Community

Author: Bronwen Forbes [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 8th. 2009
Times Viewed: 8,852

Whether you ever intend to work with what is often referred to as a traditional or mystery tradition in the Pagan community, sooner or later you will be confronted with the fact that some people and some groups keep at least part of what they do and believe a secret.

Modern America, especially since the advent of the Internet, is not particularly fond of keeping secrets any more. I have seen more rants online from new Pagans who are genuinely angry that many Pagans and Witches – particularly Gardnerians, Alexandrians, and others who can be classified as British Traditional Wiccans – actually think they have a right to keep their spiritual practice and ritual specifics to themselves. How dare they? I have a right to know!

No, you don’t.

It may seem archaic, even offensive to you, that someone won't sit down and spill their spiritual “guts” to you. The truth is, they don’t have to. Most of the time, they shouldn’t. And in some situations they aren’t allowed to. And sometimes they just physically can't.

Without trying to scare anyone or sound like a bad episode of Charmed, there are some Pagan practices that are not to be done lightly, or by a beginner who has just read one or two books and thinks he or she knows it all. No, I am not talking about summoning demons – or vanquishing them. Nor am I implying that newcomers can’t or shouldn’t dedicate themselves to a specific God or Goddess in ritual.

I am saying that without the proper context, context that in many cases can only come from solid training and/or working with a specific group for a long time, the practice or ritual just won’t make sense. The Working won’t work without a frame of reference that a beginner or an outsider to the group just doesn’t have.

Here’s the best analogy I can come up with: let’s say you’ve just gotten your very first dog ever, and you are pretty excited about all the things you and your dog can do together! You love your new pet; it’s understandable that you want to spend time interacting with him. Your best friend has a dog that has won several ribbons by competing in something called an “obedience trial.” Your friend tells you all about what to expect and what the dogs do. It sounds like fun, so a week after you bring your dog home, you sign him up to compete in an obedience trial. You arrive at the competition, but because you didn’t take a year or so to attend regular, weekly obedience classes with your dog (and then practice the lessons *every day* in between classes) , you have no clue what to do, or even what is going on. You feel foolish, and your dog, naturally, fails.

Some rituals and group secrets are like this – until you know what to do and have trained for a while, it makes no sense to tell you, so don’t ask.

On the other hand, people with legitimate knowledge and legitimate secrets don't run around tempting beginners by saying, "Nyah, hyah, I've got a secret and I can't tell you." People who are entrusted with a group's or a tradition's secrets are the sort of people who *can* be trusted with them, and who are far too mature for such playground behavior. If someone taunts you with their “secret knowledge” that they can’t tell you, walk away.

Some Pagan traditions impose an oath of secrecy on their members. Any attempt on your part to crack that secrecy and pressure the member to break his or her oath will be interpreted as a hostile act. At the very least, the practitioners will drop you as an acquaintance. If someone says, “That's oathbound, I can't tell you, ” this is your only polite response: shut up, change the subject, and privately feel very embarrassed that you put the other person into such an awkward position as to have to say that to you.

It's okay to ask questions about someone else's practice, but, like a sexual advance, “no” means “no.” And if they break their sworn word to their group and tell you anyway, they will be in very big trouble, and will probably be asked to leave. Would you really want someone kicked out of their coven family just because you were rude enough to pressure them into betraying secrets simply to satisfy your own impatient curiosity? An ethical Pagan would answer this question with a resounding, “Of course not!”

Yes, a coven and an initiatory lineage are very much like an extended family. As an outsider to family, do you really have the right to pry into the inner workings of that close-knit unit? No you don’t, any more than you have the right to barge (uninvited) into your friend’s house at suppertime, sit down at the table, and demand to be fed. That would be rude. Barging into coven family secrets is just as rude.

And some things just can't be told, because there are no words to adequately describe them. Think about your first *really good* sexual experience, when the emotions and physical actions and reactions just clicked. Now try telling a friend about it, in detail, without sounding like a story from Penthouse Forum. “Well he…and then I…and I said…and then…” Do you think your friend will understand, will truly get what you’re describing, or will he or she think it's kind of cheesy that you're even telling them this? I'm betting on the cheese.

And I guarantee the same thing would happen if a very good Pagan friend tried to tell you about a deeply moving ritual he or she attended last week. Some things you just can't express in words.

So be kind to the secret-keepers. They have a reason for doing what they do and keeping quiet about that, which cannot be spoken. This may sound harsh, but really, unless you're in the same ritual group, those secrets are really none of your business.


Bronwen Forbes

Location: Bloomington, Indiana

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