An Army of Solitaries
Neo-Paganism has been growing spectacularly in the past few years, especially Wicca which is said to have around one million adherents in the USA alone. Books such as Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” are said to have been responsible for starting thousands of covens and an even greater number of solitary practitioners.1 Wicca works wonderfully well in the small group ‘coven’ context, but it, and other versions of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft like it, works surprisingly well as a solitary personal practice. In the old days (well, for me those days are about ten years ago) when I started out learning Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, it was still relatively hard to find groups or covens to practice with. I was lucky in that I could practice with a group. I didn’t have to go to Pagan festivals and other such things in order to find “my own,” so to speak. Despite all of my involvement with my home group, aspects of which still exist with me today, the vast majority of my practice, work, and study was done on my own in a semi-solitary context.
It is clear that Wicca comprizes the vast majority of Neo-Pagans. And within Wicca, or Neo-Pagan Witchcraft as a whole, the majority of people are solitary practitioners. Some of these solitaries have never even been to any Pagan gatherings or group rituals. A sizable chunk of solitaries only communicate with other Pagans on the internet. To those who don’t know the relatively short history of Wicca, it was originally thought of as impossible to be a solitary practitioner. “Only a Witch can make another Witch” and “A Witch can not be a Witch alone” were the standard Gardnerian2 lines. This still largely holds true for most Gardnerian groups, as well as for Alexandrian groups. But for Wicca as a whole and for other groups in the Neo-Pagan Witchcraft milieu, solitary practice and even self-initiation seems to be the norm for introductions to the Craft. This development can be said to have been started by Raymond Buckland’s creation of Seax Wica (in 1974). The precedent was there before, however. People had been self-initiating and self-dedicating themselves, but their numbers were small and such people were generally not accepted as being ‘real Witches’ by most others. Seax Wica was innovative in that for the first time there was a tradition which honored self-initiation, solitary practice, and making rituals and beliefs publicly available. Today, this doesn’t seem all that innovative, but remember that in the early seventies, the Craft was still largely unavailable to the broader public. You couldn’t just walk into a chain bookstore and find material on it. Buckland’s Seax Wica changed that for good.
Now, just over the threshold of the new century, solitaries are seen as valid with self-initiation being respected. This is a healthy trend within reason and we have the saying “Who initiated the first Witch?” to illuminate this. In my personal opinion, the only one who can determine if one’s initiation and/or practice (whether solitary or not) is valid is the practitioner her/himself. Others can recognize it, and it helps to have elders and teachers to spur one along in practice. But we must keep in mind that many of what are today known of as strong traditions were self-started covens designed by people whose only contact with other Neo-Pagan Witches was through books. Like it or not, books (and/or written materials on the internet) remain many people’s introduction to Neo-Paganism, let alone Wicca. But thanks to the rise of internet chat-rooms, mail lists, and bbs communities, solitaries do not have to remain so isolated from other like-minded people. I get the feeling that many solitaries were solo-ing in the past because of the near-legendary difficulty of finding covens or groups to practice with. This is less a problem today, so it could be said that many solitaries are today that way by choice.
What is going on here? A religion dominated by solitaries? Can such a thing even be said? To answer these questions, we should keep in mind that the distinction between a solitary practitioner and a coven/group member is not as pronounced as it was twenty or so years ago. Some who are solitary today were not so in the past, and vice versa. Some people like myself are semi-solitary…i.e. At times I practice with a loose group of people I know, at other times I practice alone. Also, as pointed to above, a large amount of people who are solitary today would probably not be so if they could find a group or coven to practice with. The larger issue is that even if all the groups tomorrow disappeared, solitary Neo-Pagan Witches of all stripes would still find each other with some of them forming practice groups and planning festival gatherings. We humans are social creatures afterall and the joys of being able to share one’s deepest beliefs and cherished devotions with others can never be overstated.
As Neo-Paganism continues to grow with Wicca and the broader Neo-Pagan Witchcraft world leading that growth, the solitary phenomenon is not going to go away. Nor should it. We are Pagans, afterall, and Pagan cultures have always been open to both group and personal cults/rituals often within the same household. As polytheists of one sort or another, solitary experiences must be achieved by us all at some stage in our lives and none of it conflicts with even the tightest group practices we may engage in. I know we have some formidable obstacles, such as the rise of the Fluffy-Bunny phenomenon, which may be exacerbated by the continued growth of the solitary Pagan population, but such threats should be challenged and defused at their sources without us having to give up the flexibility that the interplay between solitary and group practice brings us.
I do have some words of advice for those of you who choose to remain among the army of solitaries, though. It is best if you do try to find other likeminded people with whom you can correspond or chat about your practices so you don’t feel alienated. Also, even if you find your beliefs and practices to be radically different from your “non-Pagan” friends and family, do try to maintain a healthy social life. This goes for you coven/group members, too. Only hanging out with members of your own faith leads to a hypertrophied emphasis on both only a part of reality and part what is divine. It is also rightly considered quite cultish behavior. If your friends and family tolerate your religious views and practices, there is no reason why you should wish to favor your Pagan connections to the neglect of your non-Pagan connections.
Also, do try to find an elder or someone in the tradition you are practicing who can mentor you a bit, or at least answer some of your concerns or questions…or who can bring you to the point where you can answer such things satisfactorily for yourselves. In these days of the internet, you can search out such people, and with some discretion and a little wisdom, you will find them. Take your time in building up such relationships, though. It is perfectly fine to find advice and/or mentoring via e-correspondence. Just remember that all individuals have their own lives and knowledge, based upon their own vision, because ultimately your practice is about YOU doing the work of learning insight and gaining access to mysteries. You need not accept everything someone else tells you. On the same token however, be respectful and actually try to listen to those who have clearly demonstrated to you that they have experience.
In closing, since we Neo-Pagan Witches (Wiccan or otherwise) cherish individual insight and creativity coming from actual practice, it is only natural and necessary that we cherish the right of certain people to be solitary. The relationship you have with the gods and goddesses is a unique universe that can never be replicated in another’s life. This is much like your unique relationships with the people around you. Such a fact about reality should always be in the forefront of our minds as we connect with and learn from one another, regardless of the respect that is due our mentors and elders.
-Irreverend Hugh, KSC
May 11th, 2005
“And you who seek to know Me,
know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the mystery:
for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.
For behold, I have been with you from the beginning,
and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”
1 Please note that I use Starhawk’s book as an example and I am referring to Neo-Pagan Witchcraft as a whole. I am not implying that what Starhawk teaches is Wicca. She herself calls what she teaches Witchcraft and Goddess worship. When “The Spiral Dance” was first published (in 1979), it was one of the few publicly accessible works that loosely described what is now known as the Feri Tradition. This tradition could be thought of as Wiccan by some people, but it is more correctly thought of as its own tradition of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. It used to be known as “Faery Witchcraft,” until Victor Anderson, the founder of the tradition, changed the spelling to “Feri” to distinguish it from other groups using the word “Faery.”
Starhawk today, (25 years later, at the time of this writing), is part of the Reclaiming Tradition, which arose in the eighties and is now its own vital tradition. Victor Anderson’s Feri Tradition is still alive and well, though it is still not as publicly accessible, since it is still an initiatory religion. Interested people can google the word “Feri” for a listing of related websites. Today, one of the most outspoken teachers within the Feri Tradition is Francesca DiGrandis. People may wish to consult her works or the work “Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition” by Cora Anderson (the partner of the late Victor Anderson). It is a beautiful and powerful tradition in its own right and can claim a history that is almost as old as any other Neo-Pagan religion today.
2 It can be said that all of Modern Neo-Pagan Witchcraft stems from Gardner. But here I am refering strictly to the groups that directly descended from Gardner and in this sense “Gardnerian” refers to that tradition. There are some Wiccans who consider themselves Gardnerian who have self-initiated and are solitary. It seems like there is an exception to everything regarding Wicca.
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Originally posted 2009-11-10 14:11:55. Republished by Blog Post Promoter