One of the great things that made Wicca an accessible religious system to me is ironically the very same thing that has long been one of my chief complaints...namely, the incredibly broad diversity of understandings and approaches that can call themselves Wiccan with some measure of legitimacy. Customarily one can expect some degree of difference to exist within any religious group, but usually there is some core set of beliefs and practices that unite the individual practitioners into a cohesive whole. While many elements may be similar or commonly understood from group to group, there is no commonly held set of beliefs or practices that serve all Wiccans, whether in group or individual practice. To my mind, while such flexibility can prove immensely valuable to some, it is also one of several Achilles Heels for Wicca as a large scale religious body.
This lack of a cohesive standard of practice and belief has been noted over the course of Wicca's development throughout the decades. The most famous effort to unify the various Wiccan factions was by a group self-designated as "the Council of American Witches," who in 1974 convened in Minneapolis, Minnesota to draft the first ever "13 Principles of Belief," which were intended to represent the majority of practicing American Witches. Of course we, being the nit-picky bunch that we are, would have none of that (although many groups today do in fact subscribe to this document).
I present here not only the original thirteen principles (in blue) put forward by the CoAW (which hilariously disbanded immediately thereafter), but I do so nested within a retort written by Aldous Tyler to illustrate our own failure in finding universal ground as practicing Wiccans. Furthermore, I add my own commentary (in red) to distinguish my own views and approach from that presented in the "Principles":
"13 Principles of Belief, Retort
by Aldous Tyler
I sympathise with you, for, sometime not so long ago, I too was under a number of misconceptions about what it meant to be "pagan" or a "witch". So, in only the interest of your further education, I will point out the inaccuracies in the Council of American Witches only surviving document:
1) We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal quarters and cross-quarters.
2) We recognize that our intelligence gives us a unique responsibility toward our environment. We seek to live in harmony with Nature, in ecological balance offering fulfillment to life and consciousness within an evolutionary concept.
Firstly, I am afraid that there are many pagans and witches who do nothing even approximating the above two points. I, for one, hold no ceremony based on the rhythms of nature for myself. There is simply no need. No matter where I am, I feel the change of seasons and day into night and back again. Marking each with ceremony is thus a completely unneeded act. I might do so if I feel like it, but that's as far as it goes.
I've yet to conduct or participate in a ritual for the purpose stated above. A more appropriate goal is to attune with the forces of Deity, rather than the more restrictive focus of Terra-based "nature". While the Esbats (moon cycles) and Sabbats (seasonal quarters and cross-quarters) do have some bearing in when ritual is conducted, it is as a general guide only. While many if not most Wiccans favor the Sabbats for their seasonal celebratory value, I prefer the Esbats for their superior consciousness-altering conditions.
On the second point, there are those of us who are not terribly environmentalist in our day to day lives or attitudes. I've seen plenty of purely Wiccan events where styrofoam plates and cups were used and tossed into the landfill-bound recepticles at the end. Are these folks not true Wiccans? Of course they are. They just don't happen to be in compliance with this concept.
This, of course, says nothing about the fact that personally, I feel that our intelligence gives us the unique responsibility to not take anything as holy writ, such as these "rules". Let's face it, we won't hurt nature if we wipe ourselves and every other living thing off this planet. It will begin again, quite happy to be rid of us. It started without life, it can start again if we eliminate it. In fact, I don't believe that any harsh conditions we might impose on this planet, such as radiation, chemical poisoning or the like, will keep it from forming new life. By all accounts, the conditions under which the first life formed the first time around were very harsh and unprotected. It might take our planet up to a hundred thousand years or more to get around to creating new life, but in the lifespan of a planet, that's the blink of an eye. No, I do not buy into the "save the Earth" concept at all. The Earth will be fine. It US we might want to save.
This "principle" is symbolic of the impact of radical environmentalism on the development of Wicca. My own beliefs include responsible stewardship, but "nature" is not defined in modern environmentalist terms, but rather as a consideration of "natural forces", most of which are seen through traditional views. And Tyler is correct here in noting that overall few Wiccans actually practice what many dogmatically preach.
3) We acknowledge a depth of power far greater than is apparent to the average person. Because it is far greater than ordinary, it is sometimes called "supernatural," but we see it as lying within that which is naturally potential to all.
Interestingly, I know a number of Wiccans who do not perorm magick, or believe it exists outside the psychological thoughtforms that human beings can deceive themselves with. Yes, I think these folks are in denial, but I won't go so far as to call them "un-Wiccan".
While Tyler is correct that some do not practice magick, on the whole I am in agreement with the principle offered. Magick is, to my view, a psychological and spiritual process that in the end is essentially an elaborate form of "prayer", or interaction with Deity to bring about certain ends.
4) We conceive of the Creative Power of the Universe as manifesting through polarity--as masculine and feminine--and that this same creative Power lives in all people, and functions through the interaction of the masculine and feminine. We value neither above the other knowing each to be supportive of the other. We value sexuality as pleasure, as the symbol and embodiment of Life, and as one of the sources of energies used in magickal practice and religious worship.
Ah, now, if only this were true. It would be nice if all Wiccans, much less all Witches, were gender balanced in their approach to spirituality. But just ask the Dianics or other radical feminist Wiccans, and you'll find that the divine male is barely there, if mentioned at all. These folks are Wiccan. These folks are Witches. Once more we see that this document, closing in on thirty years of age, has little basis in reality, and no hold on those who practice either the religion of Wicca or one of the many magickal systems called "Witchcraft".
The principle provided is generally correct inasmuch as it represents how it should be. But as Tyler points out, Wicca on the whole is grossly imbalanced with regard not only to gender equality, but even towards a realistic treatment of the genders. Just as radical environmentalism is a pollutant in mainstream Wicca, feminism is a disease that distorts much of its potential beauty. On a couple of relatively minor points, gender polarity is a crucial component of Wicca that tends to go to the wayside, and sexuality is not only one of the sources of energy used in magickal practice, but it is perhaps the most potent (although the associated taboos and common social conditioning prevent most from seriously considering it as such).
5) We recognize both outer worlds and inner, or psychological worlds-- sometimes known as the Spiritual World, the Collective Unconscious, the Inner Planes, etc.--and we see in the interaction of these two dimensions the basis for paranormal phenomena and magickal exercises. We neglect neither dimension for the other, seeing both as necessary for our fulfillment.
As I said above, there are plenty on both sides of this one who do not recognise a balance between the psychological and the "outer" metaphysical.
As previously mentioned, much of my own understanding and approach is through psychological terms, so I am here in agreement. However, as Tyler points out, it is rather ridiculous to state that neither the outer or inner world is neglected for the other. Our natural, or conditioned state is the outer world. Exploration and cultivation of the inner world requires particluar focus. We by default neglect the inner in favor of the outer, which is the whole reason for the purposeful spiritual journey.
6) We do not recognize any authoritarian hierarchy, but do honor those who teach, respect those who share their greater knowledge and wisdom, and acknowledge those who have courageously given of themselves in leadership.
This has never been close to accurate, as what of the High Priest and Priestess roles in many Wiccan covens? What of the degrees (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and for some, more)? This statement should never have been adopted into this document by any sane Wiccan of any time period. Gardner, the founder of the religon, knew better.
There are those who try to abide by this viewpoint, and there are even more who pay lip-service to it. I personally have little use for it, as I think it completely ignores the value of a traditionally structured system. There is some wisdom in the recognition of equality between all men in their individual journeys, but radical egalitarianism can become quite foolish. Who could seriously entertain the notion that the neophyte whose training consisted of a couple readings of Silver Ravenwolf is on equal ground with the High Priest of twenty years? And besides, as unpopular as it may sound, there is some very real value to "hierarchy" in a religious system...something most Wiccans, in thier lack of balance and wisdom, fail to understand.
7) We see religion, magick, and wisdom-in-living as being united in the way one views the world and lives within it--a world view and philosophy of life, which we identify as Witchcraft or the Wiccan Way.
8) Calling oneself "Witch" does not make a Witch--but neither does heredity itself, or the collecting of titles, degrees, and initiations. A Witch seeks to control the forces within him/herself that make life possible in order to live wisely and well, without harm to others, and in harmony with Nature.
And here we have yet again the misconception that to be Wiccan you must practice magick. This is simply not true. But here, we now see the fundamental ignorance in this document, for not all Witches are Wiccan. There are plenty who practice Witchcraft, who follow no set religion at all, or even follow Christianity, Judaism or another, non-Wiccan faith. And that doesn't beign to account for the followers of Anton Lavey. And again, not all Wiccans are mindful of the concept of "harming none"- many shrug this tired writ off as useless, given that it is impossible to harm no one or nothing and still exist.
I am quite fond of the part that "a Witch (Wiccan) seeks to control the forces within himself (gender neutral - figure it out) that make life possible in order to live wisely and well...". That's quite a fine ideal, and a significant focus for myself. I'm pretty sure it is far from universally practiced, however. Not harming others is another fine ideal, but I do not subscribe to it as dogma like some do (my version of the Rede is 'An it harm none, do as thou wilt. An it bring harm, do as ye must). As for the nature thing, like I said previously, "nature" to me is not focused on gaian clap-trap...it's about the natural order of things.
9) We acknowledge that it is the affirmation and fulfillment of life, in a continuation of evolution and development of consciousness, that gives meaning to the Universe we know, and to our personal role within it.
A fine sentiment, but one not commonly seen outside of this document.
I'm not even sure I can wrap my head around some of this new-agey psycho-babble, much less buy into it. But it sounds kinda warm and fuzzy...
10) Our only animosity toward Christianity, or toward any other religion or philosophy-of-life is to the extent that its institutions have claimed to be "the one true right and only way" and have sought to deny freedom to others and to suppress other ways of religious practices and belief.
Gerald Garder himself held more animosity towards Christianty than this, and by comparison to some of the anti-Christian rhetoric we see flying from the mouths of neophytes and elders everywhere, Gardner was NICE. This belonged in a document of Wiccan principles like mustard belongs in a milkshake.
Absolute nonsense. Like I've said over and over, Wiccans almost define themselves by the fact that they have a major stick up their butts about Christians. Personally, I actually believe what is so falsely expressed here...except where some may insist that their way is the only way and seek to enforce it on others, I have absolutely no beef with Christians. As a matter of fact, I have a great deal of respect and even admiration for Christianity. But in truth, based on my experience I have to say that I am in the minority of Wiccans on this matter.
11) As Witches, we are not threatened by debates on the history of the Craft, the origins of various terms, the legitimacy of various aspects of different traditions. We are concerned with our present, and our future.
Ahh, and this is why so many Wiccans, unschooled in the origin of their religion, visciously attack anyone who tells them that the only amount of millenia that Wicca has existed for is approximately 0.06? This was simply adopted to hide the fact that many less scooled Wiccans and other pagans (I was in this latter category some time ago) think that the age of a religion somehow makes it better.
Tyler is correct on this score. At the time that this document was written, most Wiccans were horribly educated in most history related to Witchcraft and Wicca. To this day, large numbers of Wiccans still buy into a lot of bad or "alternative" history that re-enforces the things they prefer to believe rather than what more serious presentations reveal. Matriarchal pre-history, anyone?
12) We do not accept the concept of "absolute evil," nor do we worship any entity known as "Satan" or "the Devil" as defined by Christian Tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor do we accept the concept that personal benefits can only be derived by denial to another.
- The two ironic things about this passage is that
- A) Laveyan Satanists are a kind of Witch (note, I did not say "a form of WICCAN"), so the passages about "absolute evil" and "Satan" are ill-applied, and
- B) In making this list of rules, the writers are engaging in the concept of personal benefits being derived by denial to another. Rules are as rules do, and that includes setting boundaries that define one thing as better or truer than another.
The only note here is something of a technical one. Perhaps the most unifying element common to most practicing Wiccan is the belief in or adherence to some version of socialist world view. This inherently conflicts with any denial that they accept that "benefits can only be derived by denial to another." Liberalism, as a modern form of socialism is firmly rooted in precisely the opposite, from each according to his means to each according to his need.
13) We work within Nature for that which is contributory to our health and well-being.
As does everyone, pagan, Wiccan, Witch or not. Nature isn't just the woods, or some remote mountaintop, nor is it only the yummy raspberry. Nature is also the poisonous hemlock, the form of communal hive-shelter we human beings call cities, and the chemicals we produce from things that came from this earth. It's ALL nature, and everyone works with it tocontribute to thier health and well-being. They simply don't agree on what that is, most often.
Once again, "nature" is to me more than just the trees and bees on this single rock floating in the universe. Wicca is to me not about "nature" as popularly understood, but natural forces which are universal. And Tyler hits on a very good point that is poorly understood in many variants of Wicca...it's not all white light and butterflies. The individual process is fine and dandy as a feel-good lite religion, but it is half empty until we seek out and engage the shadow as well.
I hope this helps illuminate why many Wiccans, witches of other kinds and pagans find this list of rules to ahve been flawed from the beginning and not applicable to them. I am personally sorry to see that it was authored here in Minneapolis, but that does give me one unique perspective on it- no one I know around here would sign a document like this today.
So there you have it...one of the few historical efforts for us to get our collective act together...and what a mess it was. Perhaps in a future rant I will propose my version of what I think should be universal Wiccan concepts. Until then, I'm tired of typing.