by a well-meaning and thoroughly-opinionated
anonymous High Priestess…
A uniquely Canadian sensibility is gradually emerging within our tradition, but we are far from monolithic in our outlook concerning our Craft. We therefore maintain very close collaborative ties with our Craft kin within the Britain, the Commonwealth, Europe and America. We are scattered all across Canada, in cities, towns and villages; some of us are Anglophones, some are Francophones, some of us are immigrants from (or descendants of) other cultures altogether. Some of us are members of First Nations, or Metis. Amongst the Witches of Canada, we are comparatively few, perhaps a small fraction of a percent of the total number of traditional initiates; it is very hard to know for sure, because of our long-standing desire to bide our silences. You will not find a box marked ‘Gardnerian’ on the Census Canada forms.
Given that ours is a religion of Mysteries, there is not all that much that we can comfortably say about what we do, and even rather less about why we do it. The discussion that follows here is intentionally vague at some points, and at other points it is difficult to state anything that one or another of our Covens might find issue with. Coven autonomy, as will further be noted, tends to encourage such independence of thought.
So, let’s give it a try, anyway:
Gardnerian Witchcraft honours a certain Goddess and a certain God, whose Names we do not speak in public out of love and respect for Them. The domain of our Goddess, in our common teachings, consists of life and the present world. The domain of our God consists of death and whatever may come hereafter. We may also choose to conduct rites in honour of, or in petition to, additional Deities as we see fit. At the heart of our practice is affirmation of the value of life, the inevitability of death, and certain promises made to us by our Goddess and God. We honour and revere the cycles of nature, in their many forms.
Our tradition is exclusively coven-based and initiatory. Self-initiation is not practised (for it is, in essence, impossible to achieve), and solitary practice is rare, being confined mainly to isolated retired Elders. Initiates who have become geographically isolated remain in formal covenant with their High Priestess until and unless they either attain elderhood, or have entered into a working relationship with a new High Priestess.
Initiations follow forms as set forth in our traditional Book of Shadows. To sum up, we work within a three-degree system of cross-gender initiation and degree elevations. The normal minimum period of formation or apprenticeship between initiation and degree elevations is a year and a day; many of our people have found great benefit in taking longer than a year and a day to work through the necessary pre-elevation teachings. Good skills take time in their learning.
In Gardnerian practice, initiation makes a clear and present change in the initiate’s circumstances; as such, it cannot be revoked or overturned by human intervention. We might not always like what our initiates have done with their magical knowledge, but we cannot retroactively declare a properly-done rite as being null and void — for initiation is an irreversible transaction between the initiate and the Gods. We offer no ‘honorary’ initiations, nor is Gardnerian initiation ‘inherent,’ ‘equivalent to,’ or ‘contained’ in the initiations of any other Pagan church, or any other tradition of the Craft.
Our covens are wholly autonomous, self-contained religious working groups. No external source of human authority tells one of our covens what to do; we therefore have no traditional office analogous to popes or bishops.
Each coven is led by its High Priestess, who acts in consultation with her chosen partner (the High Priest) and with the aid and advice of the coven’s Elders. In all matters, the High Priestess’ decision is final, even when she has chosen to delegate authority on certain issues to her High Priest or another Elder. Informally put: the buck stops in her lap, every time. In times of need, the High Priestess can function as a coven leader without the aid of a High Priest, but this lonely state of affairs is far from optimal, and we very much prefer cross-gender working-partnership. In that regard, we are quite distinct from some of the more recently-developed traditions of Witchcraft.
Coven work is participatory: all people within the sacred Circle are active participants in their own right and there are therefore no spectators, nor do we face any ‘congregation’ vs. ‘clergy’ dichotomies. Our rites take place solely within a the sacred Circle, which is properly and intentionally made according to traditional usage.
That which takes place within the sacred Circle is held in confidence by they who were present within that place. To that end, and as a sign of the ways in which we are changed within the Circle, we might choose to take magical names for use solely within our rites, where the use of ‘legal names’ from the outside world might be considered inappropriate. Outside the Circle, the High Priestess of the coven is sometimes addressed by other initiates as ‘My Lady’ in private conversation, or as ‘Lady So-and-So’ in third-party discussion with other Gardnerian initiates. However, as a general rule, the title of ‘Lady’ is very seldom used to refer to our priestesses in public; and you will not observe our priests styling themselves as ‘Lord Thus-and-So’. Practitioners of other Craft traditions may well choose differently: in fairness, our Tradition’s choices ought not to be considered as being the only reasonable choices a traditional Witch might make.
Every Gardnerian Witch can trace her or his initiatory lineage back to Gerald Gardner and one of his original working-partners, all of whom were High Priestesses. Given the nature of our teachings and initiatory passages, our lineages are expressed in terms of the priests and priestesses who came before us, for both women and men have played essential roles within our tradition’s heritage and history. As a matter of graceful politeness, we do not customarily inflict recitations of our lineage on non-Gardnerians. At best they might think we are not quite sane; at worst they might think we are full of ourselves. As a countervail to that reticent tendency, we have several devoted archivists and lineage-keepers who have worked to keep track of initiation records. We do talk to one another, and we do know who all of Gerald Gardner’s priestesses were, and what Craft descendants issued therefrom.
We pass onward to our apprentices, and work with, a traditional Book of Shadows, which consists of certain essential rituals which have been passed onward from generation to generation. Many of our initiates have hand-copied their teacher’s book, with the objective of more closely engaging with the texts. Given the cramped handwriting of our forebears, this may be quite a task. Often there will be productive discussions between teacher and apprentice while the copy-work is being done. It is important for the Seeker to understand that a genuine or authentic Book of Shadows of our tradition cannot be purchased; nor can it be obtained in any other way without the seeker’s having first properly undergone our rites of initiation. Many commercial counterfeits exist, both in print and on the Internet: remember, please, that a fool and her money are soon parted. Furthermore, the wise Witch understands that the Book of Shadows does not contain all possible knowledge; much of our traditional lore is passed in the oldest way, from mouth to ear within the sacred Circle.
We don’t charge money for traditional instruction, for initiatory rites, or for magical work. Some covens have set dues for the collective handling of their material expenses; other covens choose to rely on individual donations of consumables such as candles, wine and incense as the need arises. Nothing in our tradition forbids the acceptance of free-will offerings, but most priestesses would prefer to devote such gifts towards the material expenses of their covens. Some of us do charge for ancillary public services such as Tarot readings, which do not represent the core practice of our Faith. No legitimate Gardnerian teaching will ever be available for commercial purchase; the Seeker is strongly advised to cast a dubious eyeball on any would-be teacher who claims otherwise.
Cautions to the reader:
Gardnerian covens are fiercely autonomous . Each coven makes its own decisions and choices, and this is particularly true amongst the independent-minded witches of Canada. Therefore, no person, nor organisation, may rightly claim to speak for all of us. (This has not stopped some people from trying to do just that, but such pronouncements ought to be taken with a grain of salt). The foregoing thoughts are therefore my own opinion, and are truly reflective only of those covens with which I am familiar.
The wise Seeker will understand that the advocacy of any particular Craft tradition will likely be counter-productive. Many good and honourable Paths are available to you. The Gods will guide you as They may, within a timetable of Their own choosing.
This article has been written, and thoroughly reflected-upon, by an anonymous High Priestess, who has struggled for some years to understand how Gardnerian witchcraft fits into the Canadian mosaic (if, indeed, it can be said to fit at all!).
Permission is hereby given to freely distribute this article for non-commercial purposes, subject to the General Public Licence.