So, you have decided that this path might be for you. Where do you go? What do you do?
Okay, the first question first. There are legally registered churches that embrace pagan ways and teachings. If you find one of these and feel comfortable with the people there, this is great. In some places there are loose associations of local pagans in a community which comes together at the Sabbats and perhaps even moons; some of these communities even run public service activities like education programs, park clean-up days, and food drives. You might want to participate in such a community whether your choice of path is coven-based or solitary. There are some public groups, often associated with bookstores or certain teachers, which offer classes in the basics of witchcraft and opportunities to participate in ritual with other graduates afterward.
The classic unit of witches is the coven; this is a small group, usually not more than thirteen members, who are committed to working together on a very regular basis. You can get a lot of individual teaching as a newcomer to a coven...the trouble is that many of them don't go out of their way to be found easily.
Many of the older books on witchcraft stress working in a coven, and imply one cannot learn witchcraft or be initiated into it without the teachings that covens offer. Not surprisingly, many such books were written by people lucky enough to have received their teaching in a coven. The English Traditions of witchcraft are based on the writings of a few individuals who published books about this way of working shortly after witchcraft was removed from the English criminal code in the 1950's. Their claims that they were initiated by people who came from lines of unbroken lineage of teacher/student dating back centuries could well be true; whether the practices they codified in their classic books are also ancient is open to debate.
Another category of witches is those who belong to families whose members have practised witchcraft for many generations. If you weren't born into such a family, you are out of luck. Marriage into a family seems an extreme step to take to explore this religion further.
Some people are lucky enough to meet a witch with experience who takes a student under her wing and guides him along. This is wonderful for anyone who finds such a teacher. Unfortunately they are much rarer than those who want to learn....and without meaning to malign any such who I'm sure are wonderful and giving people, the seeker should be aware that not everyone willing to offer such instruction is as wise, intuitive, or selfless as a Yoda or a Merlin. There will always be people after money or sex or adoration. Ask if you can talk to other students and ask if you can attend classes or meetings to see if you think you'll work well with this person; if money or commitment is demanded before you have a chance to explore thoroughly, be cautious.
Many of us direct our own teaching. Even if there isn't another human involved in our instruction every step of the way, we can receive valuable teaching from many sources. The number of books on different aspects of witchcraft has mushroomed in the last decade. We can pursue specific interests in any number of short courses. There are many good people who offer advice and teaching over the internet for free. Nature is a classroom we can step into anytime with no cost more than transportation. And the Goddess and God Themselves offer us information far more often than many of us realise, just for the asking. Who could possibly be a better teacher?
A good teacher can help us progress fairly quickly. When one is teaching herself, she can sometimes follow dead ends or miss certain key points. But everything we do and see and learn along the way is of some value. And many witches are wary enough of authority that they actually prefer to make their own mistakes than to hand over any of their power to others. It is a matter of personal preference and the resources available. The old maxim that "When the pupil is ready the teacher will appear," may not refer to a single teacher who will guide one from start to finish so much as a series of teachers who She will send us when we are ready and able to perceive the lessons they have to teach.
Of course, you can still put out feelers as discreetly or openly as you wish to for other witches in your community or in the world of journals or the Internet. Conversing with others is a great source of ideas and an ongoing way to see yourself reflected in others so you can measure your progress. But there is something very empowering about meeting these people as one who is on your own path, rather than as someone who needs something from them.
So, as soon as you decide you want to start learning, that is the time to start. I can say from my own experience that it has been marvellous how books fell into my hands when I was ready, or how I met people when I needed the guidance they could offer.
The five things I suggest to newcomers who ask me are:
There are many books for beginners listed in the book review section at this site. If it's listed, that means someone felt it was of value. (the converse isn't necessarily true...if it isn't listed, that may be because no one who has read it cared enough to write a review)
Everyone who writes a book about Wicca has his or her own bias. That may be toward coven work or one tradition or another. It may be toward elaborate ritual and ceremonial magic, or it may be toward simple magic in nature. It may be toward one particular pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. It may be toward healing or astrology or divination or self-growth or magic or political activism or anything else. Many of these authors, with the best of intentions, present the ideas they see as truth as if they are the truth for all witches. If you can look for the biases of the author and keep them in mind, you will be able to discern for yourself what are basic truths and what are individual viewpoints. Of course, do this with anything I say, as well!
We can learn from anyone and anything. There is no need to limit yourself to Wiccan primers or books on magic or occult studies. It would probably be well worth your while to read books on the flora, fauna, geography, and history of the area where you live; certainly a good guide to local hiking trails is invaluable. You might want to learn more about the folklore surrounding food and its preparation. You might want to learn as much as you can about energy healing or herbalism in different traditions. Books on crafts can inspire you to make beautiful magical tools. Books on psychology can give you a broader understanding of yourself, people in general, and the principles that make magic work. History can help you understand the different cultures where certain forms of paganism flourished. Geology can help you understand the processes of the Earth and Her growth and change. You might want to read about gardening and create your own little natural haven. As I have said, nothing you learn goes to waste.
By all means read and write poetry; writing that speaks directly to the emotions can help you tune into deeper forms of knowledge. As can music; listen to music and create it in any way that appeals to you, whether that be drumming and chanting or playing a more sophisticated instrument. Read fiction based in different lands, times, or even universes; all of this expands our capacity to see possibilities other than our society's norms.
If you're reading this, you already know that the Internet is a wonderful resource. Especially seek out some of the smaller and more personal sites, which will give you a wide variety of viewpoints and some wonderful ideas to work with.
I'm not saying that any one person should pursue all these avenues. If you spent all your time reading, you won't have time for the other things in my list (grin). Read what interests you, and you may find your interests widen as your appreciation for the intricacies of Her creation widen.
I debated long and hard whether to put this before or after reading. I think it is if anything more important, just because there is such a wealth of information here which our society doesn't really train us to value.
One of the basic principles in Witchcraft is "As above, so below." Goddess is reflected in every living thing. Every person and every creature you meet reflects a part of yourself and a part of Her. As such, every living thing has something to teach you...whether this be the patience of an ant, the humility of the lovely violet, the strength of the cedar, or the different but comparable powers of the four elements. This is a path that acknowledges the sacred in all living things; the more you train yourself to see that sacredness, the more conscious you can become of the presence of the Divine in everything you experience.
"As above, so below." The cycles of the seasons and the waning and waxing of the moon reflect the cycles of our own bodies and the cycles of the ages of humankind, and even the ages of Gaia Herself. Learn to tune into these cycles, how they effect the world around you, and how they effect you...emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and energetically. The more you know about these cycles and how they effect you, the more you can remain conscious of your responses and the choices you make in differing circumstances.
Learn to use all your senses when you are out in nature. Often we focus on vision or hearing and neglect the senses that are less developed. It can be worthwhile to train all the senses by focussing on one in particular each time you go out for a walk: one day smell everything you pass, another day feel all the textures of the beings you meet. This leads to greater awareness of how the different things you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste effect you on more subtle levels as well.
Become aware of the different moods of Nature...joyful, grieving, expansive, contracting, angry, peaceful. Learn to see the beauty and necessity of all of them, and you will come to appreciate all your own moods as the passing energies they are.
As you become aware of the beauty of all She created, you will start to become aware of the ways that all her children are connected and necessary to the process of life. At this point, every new discovery becomes a source of delight.
Yes, I know. I groaned for years every time some well-intentioned person suggested I keep a journal. Let me start with two reassurances.
This book is a place for you to record your observations, musings, peak experiences, and insights. It is not a slave driver who demands words from you on a daily or even weekly basis if there is nothing you feel a need to talk about.
This book is for you...not me, or a critical teacher, or a grannie who tried to get you to keep a diary. It is a tool that you can use to help yourself in your growth and seeking. It will show you how you were feeling at a given time so that you can see trends as you read back over it. It will hold safe from the dimming effects of time those moments when you have flashes of insight, so you will never loose the wonder of those moments. It can become a way for you to speak directly to different parts of yourself, including God/dess.
Any number of times, I have sat with my journal and started defining a given problem or situation as clearly as I could...then found that some deeper source inside me seemed to start doing the writing for me, offering insight, clarity, or even valuable suggestions as to how to move forward. Some people call this automatic writing and think the source of the words is outside of themselves. I believe we all have direct access to the part of Divinity that dwells in each of us. Since I have had success in accessing this wisdom through writing, I offer this suggestion as an avenue to explore.
You might want to include information about moon phases or astrological transits in your entries so that you can see how these energies effect you. You might want to include a few words about what the plants and animals you can see are doing at this time. You might want to record your dreams, which often contain valuable messages from your subconscious, whether you can decipher these messages in the present time or not. You may want to record any affirmations you are working with so you can see what effects they have over time.
Your journal may or may not be something separate from your early "Book of Shadows." This is a book where witches record the spells and magical workings they perform, and for many of us it also becomes a reference work containing all the relevant information we come across. Early in the game you might want to record your workings in a journal along with whatever results you perceive, especially if recording things is difficult for you. Many people write descriptions of their working in a Book of Shadows and the effects in a journal.
Over the years, I have come to see my journal as a friend whom I can talk to about anything...and clarify my thoughts in the process. I also find that the more I write about what is going on in the world around me at the times of my insights and progress, the more I can appreciate how the world in general participates in my process.
Almost every book on Wicca offers directions about constructing an altar. My impression is that with the best of intentions, many of them get people convinced that they must wait until they can obtain many pieces of specialised equipment before they can think about starting to make an altar. In my opinion, the bottom line is that an altar is a space that you make sacred by dedicating it to God/dess and inviting Her to inhabit it. It can start with nothing more on it than a single candle in an aluminum foil stand; if God/dess is there, it's an altar.
In general, I suggest you start by creating a bit of horizontal space where anything you place there will not be disturbed. This could be the top of a dresser or the end of a bookshelf; many witches like to use a wonderful antique table or hutch...this is wonderful if possible, but not necessary as a first effort. If you can, I suggest you drape it with a cloth that defines it as a special space for you. Over the years I have collected cloths that speak to me of the seasons and Sabbats, but the rags of a special shirt your grannie made for you could be more than adequate to start.
Once your space is defined, start to decorate it with objects that speak to you of the sacred. Shells, feathers, rocks, pieces of wood, egg-shells...none of these are going to attract unwanted attention from witch-phobic visitors. Many witches like to have some representation of each of the four elements on their altars, along with something that says "God/dess" to them. The shell can be replaced with an ornate chalice when you find one...but it's more than adequate for now.
You may wish to include poems you have written or passages copied from books. You many wish to include pictures of your ancestors or places that are special to you. You may wish to include products of your own creativity. Whatever is sacred to you is suitable.
Arrange all these things in a pleasing way, and then cleanse the whole thing somehow. If these things are all sacred, they may not need a lot of cleansing, but it is wise to cleanse them of any negative energies they may have picked up sitting around your living space. Wafting them with smoke from incense or sage will do this if such is your intention...so will sprinkling them with water or shining the light of a candle flame on them if you ask that this be so.
Then you might want to light a candle or some incense to make the experience more special, and simply ask in your own way that Goddess and God, in whatever form you perceive Them to be, will inhabit this space. You may want to say that you hope they will find the space pleasing...you may want to acknowledge that this space is a metaphor for the space inside you that you are opening for Them to come into. You may want to read a poem or sing a song. And sit in openness until you feel Them.
Your altar becomes a place where you can contact the Divine whenever you come with an open heart to partake of its energy. Many times you will want to sit in silence. Many times, you will want to offer a prayer and wait for a response. You may want to sing a sacred song or read an inspirational work or ask for guidance from some divinatory tool such as Tarot or Runes. You may want to use this space to work on some craft that will produce a magical tool. There are no rules and your practice will evolve as you grow.
This may be the time to look into learning some technique of meditation. I could go on at length about this topic, but for now I will just say that this is a process of learning to keep the mind in focussed openness for whatever S/He may wish to communicate through any part of yourself. Perhaps you wish to turn to some of the Eastern disciplines for training in this area. My own bias is that there is no one right way to meditate, and it needn't cost you a lot of money to learn. If counting breaths or gazing at a candle flame or repeating a simple phrase of openness or intoning a simple chant or holding a particular visual image helps keep your mind focussed on being clear and open, by all means use it. Explore any and all of these possibilities.
An altar is a living thing. It needs to be maintained...both in terms of physical care and in terms of regular infusions of spiritual energy. If you neglect it and let it collect dust and clutter, you will probably find that this is reflected in how you feel. Play with how it feels to have a very spartan and simple altar, and how you feel when it is rich and ornate. Play with how it feels to have fresh flowers on your altar...or to surround it with pictures. See if you notice a difference when you clear the wax drippings and change the water daily, and how it feels if you do this only at the new moon. How does it feel when you use whites only, or when you use vivid colours?
Your altar is a reflection of yourself as spirit, and you will come to recognise when it is reflecting what you really want to be. Your altar is the space you invite Divinity into; what parts of yourself do you wish to offer to Them?
Okay, I'd like to write this without shoulding you to death. One of the beauties of this path is that it is a celebration of life rather than an effort to make you feel guilty for having fun. Just remember, "An' it harm none, do as ye will," can be a challenging rede to live by, and we all grow into better examples of what it means with time and self-love.
If you are someone who honestly believes that all living things are sacred and worthy of our respect, and you want to translate this into the ways you live your daily life, where would you start?
One step is to get out and admire all those living things whenever you can. Let the flowers know you appreciate their beauty, the trees know you appreciate their strength, the birds know you appreciate their songs. Similarly, let the worms know you appreciate how they make the soil rich for growing things, and the crows know you appreciate how they clean up the garbage.
Garbage, yes. One of the things you will become increasingly aware of as you walk this path is the effect that humankind is having on the rest of the world around us. You will want to start living with more awareness of how your habits effect the rest of Her children. Start learning about how you can make a difference in terms of what and how you consume the wealth of the world, what you waste, and how you handle that waste. You could start by buying a bin to recycle paper and other products. You could start a compost to recycle your kitchen waste. You could look into devices that lower your water consumption. You could get your car tuned up and start walking for some of your shorter trips. You could look into cleaning products that leave fewer toxic residues. You might take into account the policies of some of the companies whose products you buy: how do they treat the environment and their own employees? The possibilities grow from each other, and this isn't intended to be an exhaustive treatment of ecological living, but be aware that living pagan means living in harmony with the Earth.
As you become aware that you effect the world by much more than your physical acts, you will want to consider how your thoughts and feelings work through the Law of Three. How do you treat other people, and is this the way you would want to be treated if it came back to you threefold? What sort of energy are your thoughts and feelings putting out into the world? Would you like to live in a world where this sort of energy was amplified? Learning to let go of the potentially harmful feelings rather than nursing them, and learning how to cultivate the more harmonious feelings can truly go a long way to making our world a less violent place.
"An it harm none" includes learning to do no harm to yourself. Have you any habits that harm you physically, emotionally, or spiritually? You might start taking steps to reduce this harm or give up some of these habits that are easier to change. There is nothing like success to enable more success...if you can give up 90% of your deep fried foods, you may have more confidence when it comes to cutting down the cigarettes.
On a more joyful note, many witches adopt hobbies to emulate Her creativity. You may wish to learn more about sewing so you can make yourself a robe. You may want to take up gardening to experience first hand the miracles of sprouting, flowering, and forming fruit...there is the advantageous side effect of producing some very nourishing food for yourself and your family. Whether you paint, write, bake, work with wood or fabric, or design computer software that solves problems, creativity brings you closer to She who created this world.
One goal that many of us adopt as an ideal is to become more aware of our connection to the Divine in every moment of our day. Some of us call this living our lives as if they are prayers. What messages do your actions give to the Mother? What messages would you rather convey? Ask for Her help in making the changes you wish, and then do all you can to further the process.
I've given you a lot to think about, and I hope I've made it obvious that no-one expects you to act on all of this at once. Changes that occur at a comfortable and organic pace are more likely to be lasting. This is a path that celebrates life and the power of the individual to make positive change in his/her life...if any of the changes I've suggested don't do that, if they create stress or disharmony, they are better left for a later time.
There is an infinite amount to learn, and no one, certainly not God/dess, expects you to learn it all in one year or even one lifetime. Learn what appeals to you. Learn what you are nudged to learn when you ask for guidance....sometimes taking on the more difficult tasks can yield huge rewards.
You may have noticed that I have spoken very little about magic in this piece. Ritual to celebrate the God/dess's creation and ritual to make desired changes within it are not that different, and I certainly have no intention of laying down laws about when you might be ready to start working magic. Indeed, creating your altar is a magical act.
Magic is a powerful tool and, like a gun or a stove should be treated with respect. When you want to make change, in yourself or in the world around you, ask first if this will harm anyone. Our actions may have repercussions we can't perceive with our limited vision. In general, if you attempt magic that will harm others or yourself it won't work too well, unless you are very accomplished. Think through your goals carefully; you might want to start with work that will effect primarily yourself and take on work for others later when you know enough to avoid some of the pitfalls.
You will find works that instruct you in magic from basic principles and works that give you step by step recipes to follow. Consult these books for ideas, but my experience is that your work will be more powerful if it is something your create for yourself. Magic is a process of defining goals and causes and tuning into the forces that could nudge those causes; it is a process of focussing your mind, emotions, and will, using the objects of a spell to symbolise the change you wish to make. The actual physical process is only the tip of the iceberg, the mental discipline must be there to make things work. The processes I've outlined above are some of the ways to develop the discipline that will make magic a natural product of your spirituality.
Love, light and power to you on this path. I haven't given you a roadmap so much as shown you some exercises that will help you develop the skills you will need to walk this path successfully. How you choose to use this information is up to you.
text, design and graphics copyright Willowsong 1997