In this discussion, we will create a working definition of “Traditional Paganism”, delineate five “tracks” of Pagan practice and study based on the degree of “Traditionalism”, discover the pros and cons of Traditional Study, and outline the basic steps of becoming a Traditional Pagan. Finally, we will speculate on the future of the Traditional Pagan movement and discuss its meaning in today’s society.
It is important to note that this material is developed by a Traditional Wiccan, and may therefore seem to hold a slight Wiccan bias. Every attempt has been made to address Neo-Paganism as a greater whole, but as the author’s personal experience with Traditional Paths is through Wicca, and this emphasis may become evident.
For the purposes of this discussion, the term “traditional path” will be used to mean an initiatory, mystery path with a lineage of teachers or trainers working from the same base material. Initiation can be described as the “ah-ha!” experience. Most Traditional pagan paths include an initiation rite of some sort to mark the development of the student to the point of initiation by the deity. While it’s is generally recognized that it is, in fact, deity who causes the initiatory experience to occur in a seeker, the ritual performed by the working group is essential as it is a recognition by the peers of the seeker that the initiatory experience has occurred. Within a working group, it is important that each member recognize the others’ development.
In a religious sense, “mystery” means that there is a “truth” which can only be understood by those who have opened to it, often through esoteric or mystical means. Often these mysteries seem to the uninitiated to be paradoxical, puzzling, or simply dramatic. The “mystery” lies in a series of discoveries and revelations that allow the seeker to learn to “know himself” and to find his peace in his environment.
Traditional groups respect the lineage of teachers. Essentially, this means that the seeker is taught what her teacher was taught by his teacher who was taught the same things by her teacher before her and so on. Usually, a body of work consisting of wisdom, information and practices will be passed to all students in a given Tradition, either through copying, training, oral distribution, or in a “Book of Shadows”.
Ultimately, someone developed the body of the Tradition that the seeker is working with, but even then, the Tradition is probably based on earlier work. It is this lineage of passed on traditions (small t) that indicates to some seekers that they are following practices thousands of years old. Within a Traditional lineage, the information may evolve to a breaking point where a “new” Tradition emerges. Generally, material may be added to a Tradition’s training, but nothing should be deleted without giving the result recognition as a unique Tradition from its parent.
For the purposes of this discussion, Paganism as a whole will be divided into five types of paths, with varying degrees of “Traditionalism”. These descriptions are not meant to segregate Pagans of various backgrounds, but rather to be used as a tool for differentiating between backgrounds, and to better understand the uniqueness of each path.
Eclectic or Independent (Neo)Pagan (or Pagan sub-path, ie. Wicca)
By far the most common category of Pagan practice, independent Pagans generally maintain a solitary practice and are usually “self-taught”. Ten to fifteen years ago, independent pagans were a rarity, to be sure, but since the mid ’80’s, the market has flooded with books, videos, and websites on the basics of various forms of Pagan practice, and many have jumped at the chance to practice what “feels right” without the need for Traditional training.
Because of the reliance on books, websites, etc. independent Pagans are often familiar with information that Traditional Pagans may consider inaccurate, questionable, or even dangerous.
Independent Pagans may collaborate with other independents to create a free-form group of some sort, which may take a name similar to those used to describe Traditional groups (coven, grove, etc.).
The practice of the independent Pagan is usually based in a variety of material, which may or may not contradict itself, and is qualified by a “whatever works” outlook.
Some solitaries and groups work with a semi-traditional format, that is to say, they make use of material from one or two specific Traditions, and “fill in the blanks” with independent work as necessary. The Traditional material may have been acquired from published information, through someone with limited Traditional training or understanding, or from a schismatic organization.
Many emerging ‘Eclectic Traditions’ begin this way. A group of independents may come together, agree on a specific set of available material to work from as their base, and then develop a new Tradition on this foundation.
Such groups are often organizationally focused. There is a greater emphasis on group work and meetings than on solitary development. Unfortunately, because of the organizational focus often exhibited by these groups, power plays may destroy the group’s cohesion.
Occasionally, a new Tradition emerges from a blending of existing Traditions. The new Tradition may be a blending of two or more Traditions of one branch of paganism, or a blending of two or more branches of pagan thought. (Wicca/Druid, Wicca/Shaman, Druid/Asatru, Hellenic/Wicca, etc.)
This blending of Traditional material may be acquired by two or more people, each bringing the training of one particular branch or Tradition with them to form a new group, and then cross-initiating each other or choosing non-“oath bound” material for blending into a new Tradition.
One person or working pair may become initiates in more than one existing Tradition, and develop a new Tradition constituting the whole of their training, usually with the blessings of their teachers. (Black Forest Clan is such a Tradition.)
Because of the Traditional background of these groups, they tend to function more like Traditional organizations, choosing quality candidates over numbers, and selecting new seekers for training carefully.
Traditional Pagan paths will exhibit universal similarities along each branch. The groups on a single Tradition may be autonomous, but will have certain core practices in common. Schismatic Traditions (new Traditions formed when something is dramatically altered along a line of training) generally maintain many core practices of the parent Tradition.
Most Traditions include specific guidelines for training and practice, and may include a particular training regimen. Thus, one may leave one group within a Tradition during her training, and be able to continue within another group of the same Tradition. Since groups are usually autonomous, there is no guarantee of future training, but the possibility exists.
Lineage is key. Within Traditional Pagan paths, one will know the generations of teachers that contributed to his training, as it will be important when discussing his training with other members of the Tradition. Traditionalists may also use the lineage as a test of “authenticity”. Various Traditions may exhibit overlapping lineages, due to the number of schismatic Traditions that have developed.
The group structure may seem familial, and in some Traditions, known as “Fam-Trad”, it IS family. The group cohesion creates what is known as a “group mind”. This is the heart and soul of a magical working group-entity.
A word about emerging Traditions: there is no consensus about when a new Tradition is “Traditional”, but there are some guidelines. Some say “three generations”, which means that the person(s) who began the Tradition have trained Initiates who have trained a third generation of Initiates. Some say when the originating group has spawned three groups that have each been in existence for over a year and a day. Some say when the founder(s) kicks the bucket. Many Traditional groups have spun off of other Traditions by changing just a few minor practices so retain their claim to “Tradition” while adopting a new Tradition name.
Some Pagan groups and solitary practitioners make a sincere attempt to recreate the Pagan practices of old. These are often called “Reconstructionists” or “Recons”, and can seem like a mad-mesh of SCA and Independent Paganism to the outsider. Reconstructionists may call themselves “Traditional” to indicate that they are attempting to follow practices established prior to the Neo-Pagan movement. (ie. Any pagan practices emerging after a given culture’s immersion in Christian religio-politics.)
Occasionally, a Reconstructionist organization will attempt to validate itself by claiming an unbroken lineage to pre-Christian adherents. While these claims are interesting, they are usually unprovable. However, this is not important, as the mythological origins of the practices may be primary to the individual member’s understanding of the path.
Arguments against Traditional Paths
Traditional groups are elitist.
This is true, from a certain viewpoint. Traditional groups tend to work in closer more cohesive groups than Independent groups, and thus need to be extremely selective when choosing who will and will not be trained by a particular group or teacher.
Traditional Initiates go through a great deal of work and study to reach initiation, and are proud of the personal development they have undergone. Because of this, they hold their heads a little higher, walk with confidence, and usually don’t take anybody’s crap. This may make them seem “untouchable” to those who have not undergone similar experiences.
Traditional groups won’t initiate everyone.
First of all, not all people are right for ANY Traditional Path. There is a great deal of dedication and a huge sacrifice of time and energy required to be a part of a Traditional group, and not everyone is able to make that commitment.
The seeker may simply not be right for the particular Tradition. Some groups will quiz a seeker on his opinions prior to admitting him to the group for training, to see if his views are compatible with those of the Tradition.
The seeker may simply not fit well with the group. This may be discovered through an interview process, but may not come to light until much later in the training process.
Traditional groups will not initiate someone who has not completed the Tradition’s training, although if the seeker has undergone similar training, they may be able to “challenge” for initiation, acquiring only the Traditional training necessary to “fill in the gaps”.
Most Traditions have a specific oath regarding the selection of students. It is against this oath to train someone without first assuring that this person is a “proper person” seeking the Tradition with sincere intentions.
Traditional groups are too political and full of power trips!
Most genuine Traditional groups don’t fall prey to power trips, because the person acting as the group Leader has been sufficiently trained to observe her behavior and take preventative measures should “High Priestess fever” take over. There are, of course exceptions to every rule.
The “family style” training grounds can make a group extremely protective of its membership. Each member of a Tradition becomes a representative of that Tradition when in public. Therefore it is important that each member be cautious and thoughtful about his actions and words.
Bowing and scraping and all that jazz are so stupid. All pagans are equal!
Traditional Pagans may observe a certain amount of ritual gentility as recognition of the sacrifices and contributions of our teachers. This etiquette rarely extends beyond common courtesy as one would show to family elders when outside ritual settings.
Some Semi-Traditional groups have heard about this sort of thing and will let it get out of hand, requiring every “office” of a working group to be filled, and the “appropriate” respect shown to people who very simply have not reached a point where they can accept such behavior gracefully.
Arguments for Traditional Paths
Lineage, lineage, lineage.
The lineage provides a number of things for the members of a Tradition, all of which support the stability of the Tradition. Tried and true training methods and materials, supportive connections, and the passing on of power are a few examples of what lineage offers.
Lineage is very important to some people, not so to others. There are those who enter into the bounds of Tradition simply to receive a lineaged initiation.
Establishment and Respect
Most Traditions have a strong foothold, and many are recognized and respected by those outside of the Tradition. Because the Tradition is defined, saying that one is, for example, a Gardnerian Witch is giving a much more specific description of one’s practices than simply saying that one is a Witch. With the current dilution of language, “I am a Witch” could mean anything from “I’ve seen The Craft” to “I’ve studied and practiced the path of Alexandrian Wicca for 10 years and am the presiding High Priestess of an active coven with 4 daughter covens hived from it.” The definition of the Tradition will give the listener an idea of the level of training that the speaker has been exposed to, the knowledge and discussion level he can expect, etc.
The Tradition has a history of its own that members can relate to and become a part of. It’s a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself, or one’s nuclear group.
For many, the decision to enter into the bonds of Tradition is simple: They have discovered a Tradition which has teachings that match their own extant beliefs and practices so closely that little or no adaptation will be necessary, and they will be able to participate in group practice.
There should be commonalties between the seeker’s positions and that of the Tradition in all instances, but for most people, there will be a degree of adjustment to work within the Tradition cohesively.
Traditional Pagans usually work in small, family-sized groups, or in small sub-groups of a larger family (such as the “guilds” in ADF Druidry), thus providing the seeker with a community to work through issues and to study with.
Traditional Groups are often very present in the greater Pagan community, offering festivals, assisting in area events, providing open classes, etc. A Traditional Group’s “staying power” can allow it to provide a backbone for a local community of all sectors of Paganism.
Walking the Traditional Path
It might take a while to locate a Traditional Pagan group, as they tend to not be as “out there” as many of the more liminal groups. Don’t be in a big hurry. Traditional study is not about “fast results”.
Begin by researching various Traditional paths that appeal to you. A wealth of basic information is available on the Internet, and you may also be able to make contacts through this medium. There are mailing lists, groups’ websites, and message boards that can be used to aid in research. Developing an essential dossier on at least four groups will help the seeker understand the differences and similarities between the various groups on one path. A tool for developing such a dossier is included below.
If you “meet” a Traditional contact online or at a festival, etc. whose Trad you would like to investigate further, don’t despair that the person is not in your locale. Often, Traditional Pagans maintain relationships with other groups within the Tradition, and may be able to help you in finding a group closer to you to interview with.
What to expect initially
Most Traditional groups are extremely protective, as mentioned above. There will probably be a number of interviews and/or “tests” prior to admittance as a student. The seeker may be asked to take part in a Wicca 101 series, even though she has been studying on her own for ten years. This is not meant as a dismissal of her prior study, but as a chance to see how she interacts with other students and teachers without undergoing any bonding ritual.
The seeker should ensure that the group she is considering being a part of is reputable, cohesive and led by a scrupulous person. If a teacher asks for inappropriate “favors” or an exorbitant amount of money in exchange for teaching, the student should seek other training. Another warning sign is a teacher that professes to “know everything” about a path, and insists that he no longer needs to study.
There may be a “hot seat” interview, which may seem dramatic or harsh. Again, this is a test of the seeker’s compatibility.
Much like a job interview, if the seeker is not selected to enter the group as a member, he may never learn exactly why. The reasons for this are simple: much of the activity of a Traditional group may be oath bound, and to tell a person that he wasn’t selected because of XYZ would be commiserate with breaking those oaths. It is acceptable to ask the Traditional contact if he or she can point the seeker to another group that may be better suited.
Once a new student is accepted into the group, the real testing begins. Camaraderie, devotion to the group and to the work, dedication to the training, eagerness in learning and participating, etc. are just a few things that a trainer may assess prior to determining if a person is right for full membership (often through initiation) into the group.
Walking the path daily
Traditional work requires a certain level of personal dedication. The student must be willing to work regularly through the Traditional material and to integrate the practices into her life. When problems in life arise, the Traditional material is there to help the seeker work through the struggles and lessons of life and emerge wiser and clearer.
When “real life” gets in the way of the Traditional studies, or vice versa, there is a conflict and the studies are not suited to the seeker. The seeker may not be aware that these difficulties are emerging–it’s a case of not “seeing the forest for all the trees”. Those around the student will usually be aware of conflicts such as these before the student is.
A seeker on the Traditional Path must be self-motivated. Most Traditional trainers will not “keep after” a student. Deadlines may be given and/or reminders made, but the trainer is unlikely to get “mad” at a student for not completing his or her work. The work is for the student’s personal development, and incomplete work will be far more detrimental to the student than the teacher. However, incomplete, sub-par or late work may reflect on the student’s dedication and the trainer’s decision to go forward with advanced training and/or full membership.
Traditional paths are “disciplines”, and therefore require discipline in the student. Daily work as a solitary, personal work and study, and group work are all part of this discipline. A Traditional Pagan will always a seeker.
An initiate and teacher of 30 years will still be seeking and studying. A teacher of a Traditional path is teaching the Tradition. He will be well versed in the Tradition, especially if he is working within a Tradition that uses a “hive” process to begin new groups. However, he will be open to learning from his students in subjects that he is not as well versed in. Many groups hold classes to study “supplemental” or non-Traditional material.
Most Traditional Pagans are innately curious about their own backgrounds, and will often research in anthropology, archeology and history. Creaking bookshelf syndrome is common in a Traditional Pagan household.
The future of Traditional Paganism
The idea that Independent Paganism saw its “boom” as an outgrowth of the 1980’s “cult of self” is a compelling one, and leads one to ponder the staying power of the Independent movement. While a strong sense of self and personal empowerment is important within Traditional Paganism, devotion and service are equally emphasized. Those who are drawn to Neo-paganism as a response to a burgeoning self-help industry, bolstered by a strong economy and a secular regard for ambition may find themselves confused in a poor economy where staying afloat is a more common goal than getting ahead.
The concept of a Pagan laity, as discussed by HPs Judy Harrow of the Proteus Coven in New York, is another compelling concept. As the Neo-pagan movement moves past its infancy, we find many are interested in the basic beliefs and practices of Paganism, but do not wish to undergo the years of intensive study necessary to be adept clergy. It is possible that in the future, Traditional Pagan groups will provide the clergy to minister to the emergent Pagan Laity, offering such services as spiritual counseling, Rite of Passage rituals (birth, coming of age, croning, death, union, dissolution, etc.), regular worship, and essential teaching.
“Very briefly, I think the development of a Pagan laity is a natural and inevitable outcome of our growth and our making ourselves more accessible. Now that we are easier to find, people who are less driven will find us. People who do not have a religious calling, per se, but who use religion as a source of guidance and power for whatever their actual calling is. And it does take many kinds of people with many different callings to make up a healthy community, so I think this is a Good Thing for Pagans. I also think it has to be a good thing for society in general as more people in all walks of life — schoolteachers, health workers, librarians, whatever — are guided in their work by Pagan values.
“As these people gather, they need what any layfolk need from their neighbors who have a religious calling — regular worship services, someone to conduct appropriate rites of passage, spiritual counsel, etc, etc. To the extent that Initiation either establishes or celebrates a special connection with the Sacred, I think it becomes the role of Initiates to manifest that connection in this world, in service to both the Gods and other Pagan folk. In other words, the existence of a laity creates the need for a clergy.
“The challenge, for those of us who are TradCraft, is to offer this service while keeping our work, our religious activity, entirely within the “love economy.” It’s not just a matter of “we don’t sell the Craft.” That’s true enough, but it’s a limited and exterior view. The more affirmative statement “we do this for love alone” opens to a profound spiritual stance and a radical challenge to prevailing values in which everything is done for selfish and ulterior reasons.” –Judy Harrow via email.
Traditional Paganism continues to grow and change. New Traditions are being developed regularly, some with Old Tradition roots, some without. What was once “the only way to fly” is slowly coming around to being “the specialist”. I think we will find that the conservative Traditions will become even more conservative, sticking to the essentials of their ways without diversion, whereas the more liberal Traditions will expand and weigh the value of changes as necessary. The axiom “change or die” comes to mind, but then we are reminded of the Orthodox Jews and Christians who continue in small sects, to worship in the ways of hundreds of years ago.
“Within the Wiccan movement, for example, there has always been tension between the so-called “traditionalists”–those who revere liturgies and rituals that go back at least to 1939 and perhaps further–and “eclectics,” who spend more time creating their own ceremonies than honoring the older ones. The struggle is an honest one because there is something warm and safe about participating in ceremonies that are familiar and comfortable. At the same time, there is an exuberance and power that comes from creating something based on immediate needs. But old rituals can deteriorate into rote; new ceremonies can feel disorganized.” Margot Adler on Beliefnet
The development of the Independent Pagan movement and groups of limited Traditional emphasis has allowed Traditional Paganism to maintain its emphasis on selection and intense training. Traditional training has a place in the modern “instant gratification” society among those select few who see quality in hard-won goals and in long-term growth, and those who feel a spiritual “calling” to serve as clergy.
The Independent movement is likely to continue to grow and to dwarf the Traditional movement in numbers and noise, and it is therefore important for those of Traditional backgrounds to learn to “play nice” with Independents, make appropriate comments, and assure that the loudest Independent in the room, when talking to the press, is an appropriate representation to those who have no idea that there is a difference between a 15 year old who read one book and declared himself a master wizard and a druid who has studied and taught within Tradition for ten years.
The Traditional movement will not go away. Thanks to the efforts of the early Neo-pagan authors of the 50s and 60s, the Traditional movement will continue alive and well, as much as the Independent movement seeded by their works.
The Traditional Movement will continue to respond to those who feel that our religion should act like any other established religion with Traditional values. The issue of Pagan laity opens this discussion up to further debate.
“I think the main struggle for Wicca and all forms of Contemporary Paganism remains the tension between being more mainstream and organized and keeping the strength that a critic from the outside always has – which allows us to see the real problems with religion in America. I personally like the outsider role and am not sure about all this, ‘lets have churches, let’s have seminaries, let’s have paid clergy, lets be just like all the rest.’ ” –Margot Adler in a Wiccan/Pagan Times interview
Further Reading On the Web
Paying the Priestess, Margot Adler: Beliefnet, 2001
New Traditions, Margot Adler: Beliefnet, 2001
Risking Dedication, Judy Harrow: Proteus Library, 2000
BE NOT AS THESE: the Wiccan case for unpaid clergy, Judy Harrow: Proteus Library, 2000
Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Wicca, Forest and Joe Butera: Blue Moon Wicca, 2002
Wicca – traditional vs. non-traditional practice in 2001, Forest and Joe Butera: Blue Moon Wicca, 2001
Finding the right teacher or coven, Forest and Joe Butera: Blue Moon Wicca, 2001 (While this guide was developed with Wicca in mind, it is helpful for any Path.)
A special “Thank You” to ControlF9, Forest Butera and Judy Harrow for your assistance in this article!