(Note from Daven: Blacksun has a formidable reputation in the Pagan community, almost as good as Searles O’Dubhain, Mike Nichols, and Isaac Bonewits. I respect his opinion and his thoughts. I have read this article in it’s entirety, and can’t find anything to criticize. I hope it helps you in your seeking.)
Find a teacher; join a coven…Simple, right?
If you are new to the Pagan community, or if you are thinking about working with others, please read this. This writing is directed toward the ever growing number of people who are anxious or “desperate” to join in to the Pagan community but who also might make foolish choices about with whom they choose to be affiliated.
There is a great deal of activity in the Pagan scene these days. Everywhere one turns, there are this and that “grove,” “coven,” “circle,” or whatever, offering all kinds of inducements and seductions to those who are attracted to our religion and sub-culture. But many times, at public gatherings or just in private talk, I am asked why it is so difficult to get admitted into a traditional coven (grove, circle, whatever… I’ll just use the word, “coven” from now on) or why it’s so hard to find a good “teacher.” Or the person will say something like, “I’m desperate! Could you tell me who’s accepting students right now?” These questions make me wince inside. What I would say to people who ask them follows.
Let’s take the question, “Who’s accepting students right now?” first. Probably the truest answer is, EVERYBODY! But that doesn’t even begin to cover the complexities of the situation. The question itself makes me believe that there is a misunderstanding on the part of the questioner. It shows a way of thinking on the matter that is possibly dangerous because it assumes things which just don’t apply in this case. First, it assumes a student- teacher arrangement much like a public school. It isn’t, or, at least, it isn’t if the “student” is on a religious quest. And, after all, that IS what Paganism is: a religion.
There are two varieties of Paganism we need to talk about for our purposes here. There is the kind that confers priesthood on the person, and the kind that accepts them as a participant within the religion. There is no “better,” so don’t be swayed by any arguments that imply there is. The path of the priesthood is the one that leads to leadership within the religion and ministry. It certainly is not for everybody and it should not be entered into without a very compelling reason.
Each has its own methods for imparting knowledge and training. In fact, each tradition has different methods for study, indoctrination, work, and initiation. Differences are also apparent from teacher to teacher. But something which is often not understood by those seeking studentship is that the teaching is different from student to student, too! How and what is taught is dependent upon the student’s needs and behavior. The relationship between student and teacher (at least in most situations) is very close and intense. A good teacher will have an overall plan for imparting knowledge, what will be covered, the approximate order in which it will be presented, stuff like that. But exactly what will go on in each meeting between the two will have to be geared to the individual circumstances as they unfold. It isn’t simply facts that are being taught; it is a way of looking at the facts and a background understanding that shapes the meaning and interrelations between those facts.
You have to remember that a RELIGION is being studied. For example, you could standardize a lesson on herbs, but how can you cover the whole meaning of the magic behind the use of them? The information is a subjective one and must be approached and imparted by a “feeling” (this might be better expressed by the word “experience”) on the part of the teacher about what is going to spark the student’s understanding.
In the best of circumstances, where the chemistry between student and teacher is just right, the distinction between who is the teacher and who is the student becomes quite blurred. The best of students, combined with the best of teachers (“best” as defined by the relationship, that is) results not so much in a student/teacher situation, but in a partners-in-discovery type of educational experience for BOTH. These circumstances, however, are preciously few. One of the reasons is that many who “teach” are doing so primarily because it gratifies their ego to have someone look to them for answers and guidance. They are too fond of the idea that THEY are the one in control to ever think about sharing the duty of learning and discovery. Another reason: many who assume the role of “student” are unwilling to take the initiative when it comes to their learning; they would rather sit and do only what is required to “get a passing grade.” They do not strive toward self-betterment outside of the directions given by some authority figure. Unless they are lucky enough to have a very, VERY good teacher who can stimulate the student out of their lethargy, these students will not grow. But then, given a choice in the matter, what good teacher would waste their time on such a student?
Does that sound cold and uncaring? It shouldn’t, if you think about it. Remember that the original question was “who is accepting students?” Well, anybody who teaches is, but they don’t have an infinite amount of time and energy. So, if they don’t use that energy where it will do the greatest amount of good, they’re wasting not only their own resources, but making it harder for those who are looking for quality training. In short, if a teacher and a student are not working well together, something is wrong with the setup and it should be changed or terminated. Perhaps the only problem is that the personalities are not right. Or, that one or both are not meeting the expectations that generated the relationship in the first place.
The latter reason, by the way, is often the case. But it is a simple matter to avoid that problem. It’s called a contract. For years, I have made a written document that spells out what schedule is to be followed (so neither of us is sitting around, wasting time waiting for the other), what guidelines each will follow for the other to continue the association, a method for problem resolution, goals and expectations from both parties, etc.. Both the student and I sign this contract and there is a small ceremony to mark the implementation of it. You would be astounded how many times I have heard stories about how this or that person (teacher or student) did or failed to do something which the other thought was cause for terminating the relationship… all the while, the other person is saying, “but I didn’t KNOW!” With a simple document (I’m NOT advocating getting lawyers and congress in on this… just a plainly worded, honest attempt at making things clear), much of this sort of thing can be avoided. Simply the act of sitting down together and making sure that such a document has been thought out and produced can make for a lot fewer “casualties.”
Here are a few things to look for when trying to find somebody who will teach you or help you along your spiritual path:
1] Does the person MAKE SENSE when they talk to you? Do you understand how they are using words and do you feel they are really saying something which is meaningful? Beware of the person who tries to buffalo others with great mystical sounding hype. IF IT SOUNDS LIKE A CARNIVAL ACT, IT PROBABLY IS!
2] Does the person seem to care about people? Or do they constantly talk about themselves, or about the faults and misdeeds of others?
3] Does this person have a sense of humor? Do they know how to have a good time? Can they laugh at themselves? Without such a capacity, you will quickly be reminded of the story of Jack and how he got to be a dull boy.
4] How does this person react when you disagree with their ideas? TEST THIS!!! Believe me, this bit of knowledge can save you from a great deal of trouble.
5] Last, but not least: what kind of people does this person look up to? Who does he or she admire? And what sort of folks do they hang out with? If you don’t feel right about these people, you had better think twice about attaching yourself to this person.
If you have recently “discovered” Paganism and are seeking some guidance or instruction, you know how difficult it is to find qualified people who will take you on as a student. It is terribly frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that many people end up taking the first person they can talk into accepting them. Unfortunately, this is almost ALWAYS the “teacher” that is least qualified. It figures: those who are really GOOD have so many people asking them to teach them they have to pick very carefully who will be their students. As I mentioned before, if the teacher is not very choosy, they are doing a disservice not only to themselves, but to the future of the religion and to all the other people who have labored long and hard to become “worthwhile” prospects.
I know how hard it is to accept, but the old saying, “the teacher will find the student,” is true. When you are ready to have a teacher, the right one will come along. I’ve seen it too many times to refute the validity of the homily. This, of course, will NOT satisfy anyone who is anxious and highly desirous of getting a teacher NOW! Waiting is not advice taken well by the frantic, no matter how valid it might be. I remember that feeling myself.
“All right,” you say, “I will curb my anxiety and trust that what this guy says is true. However, in the mean time….” Yes, in the mean time, what DO you do?
You read. You discuss what you’ve read with others who are part of the scene. You seek out contact with those who are considered “leaders” within the community. You ask them questions and discuss your opinions and views whenever they can spare the time for you.. You attend gatherings, festivals, and open rituals. You immerse yourself in the subject. Also, you keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to change your mind!
This will do several things: First, it will help you know your way around the community. It will get your face known. It will let those teachers that are really right for you get to know you and to know about you. Second, it will allow you to sample some of the aspects of the religion and the people that profess it. It will give you a wide perspective about a variety of subjects that are part of the religion. In short, it will give you depth. And third, if this religion is really not as suited to you as you first believed, it will give you time to discover that fact before you frustrate both yourself and others trying to become somebody’s student. Most of all, it will provide the greatest opportunity for you to be “found” by the RIGHT teacher. Remember, though, that YOU have to be the judge of who is right for YOU. It is possible that the wrong ones could look attractive; use VERY keen judgment before you accept any sort of arrangement. Investigate! If the person is not willing to let you do that, run! (don’t walk) away! Any kind of pressure on you to decide hastily is cause to slow down and look more carefully. Don’t forget that your own desires and anxieties can be a source of pressure, too.
Now let’s look at the idea of joining a coven. This is a VERY serious move. ANY group that practices magic together must have just the right mixture of personalities to keep itself alive. These days, it’s relatively easy to find a group that will let you “in.” The hard part is finding a group that will stay together long enough to make that worth your while! And the need to work together for a long period of time is essential. Disciplining yourself to work magic is difficult and time consuming; getting a GROUP to do it takes an even longer period.
Oh, you aren’t interested in working magic, just forging a spiritual lifestyle? Fine, you could do that by yourself. But to do it in a group is more rewarding in many ways. However, the price you pay for group spiritual growth is that everybody has to feel completely comfortable with the rest of the group. And how many times have you felt totally comfortable in any group situation? It isn’t easy.
Let me explain why I say you need to feel comfortable with the rest of the people in the group. Spiritual growth is a difficult task. It requires that the person be able to accept the truth about themselves whether they like it or not. It is an emotionally and psychologically painful process. Most assuredly, it has a great deal of pleasant and inspiring moments, and the end goal is probably the greatest possible treasure we can strive for, but it is a long and demanding path.
If we decide to make that journey with others, the last thing we need is the playing of ego and head games. We will need their support at times, just as they will need ours. We (and they) need a space where we can feel free to express ourselves naturally and candidly, not guard our words and limit our thoughts. Such freedom is rare amongst groups of people. It takes time to build the trust and true affection necessary for that freedom. This is done neither quickly nor haphazardly. To enter into a group without sufficient exposure both ways (they get to know you; you get to know them), is probably the surest way to foul things up.
My coven has had a long standing rule to not bring in anybody new unless the whole group has had an extended period of time to size them up, and visa versa. We usually say this should be a year, but there are exceptions. Why so long? Because a year allows us to see the person in every shade of their lives. As the seasons go by, the person is subjected to the same elemental forces that we are. The stages of our lives are mimicked by the seasonal changes. If a person is sharp, they too will be able to size up the members of the group in the same way. We have lost the chance to bring in some very worthy people because of this long waiting period, but we have also made very few mistakes about whom we take in. With the addition of even one new person, the character and dynamics of the entire group changes. We want to make sure that change is worthwhile.
The ability to reliably predict the future effect of any addition is more a matter of experience than any sort of training or talent. The person in charge of the group (more on that later) should be very cautious about accepting newcomers. If their wisdom and insight fails, it could easily spell disaster for the whole group.
I have found that friendship means very little in the long run when it comes to selecting who should be part of a coven. It doesn’t hurt, but it is not necessary. Respect for and understanding of one another are much more important. Usually, friendships will form, but only after the relationships settle into a comfortable “fit” between all of the members can real spiritual growth happen. And that takes time.
A year may sound like an unusually long time to have people think about the possibility of joining a group. But remember that we aren’t talking about forming a social club; this is a group that will constantly be delving into the deepest and most meaningful parts of the lives of its members. This is a group dedicated to working on one of the most difficult aspects of the human psyche. If there is a rush to join, either by the prospective member or the group itself, the wrong goal is being sought after. The goal is long term, personal, spiritual growth, NOT strength of numbers or ego enhancement of anybody.
We each would like to think that we are so agreeable that we can get along without any direction or guidance in small groups. I hear a great deal about “rotating leadership” or “egalitarian” groups. Mostly, I hear that they’ve broken apart after bitter arguments amongst the members! There has been a great deal discussed about how Pagan groups are non hierarchical. Nobody is better than anybody else and nobody is “in charge.” While this may sound wonderfully Utopian, in reality it is chaos. Even when all of the members of such a group SAY that nobody is in charge, the usual situation is that someone is consistently acting as the leader for the group. That they are not acknowledged as such doesn’t lessen the control they exert, only make it more possible for unwise control. The facts are that groups with the longest record of survival (and amount of time together has a great deal to do with how members grow in spirituality) have strong central leadership.
This does not mean that every group that has a “Great High Poo Poo” will always present the best opportunity for spiritual growth. Strong leadership is not always good leadership. If you are seeking a group to work with, finding one with a centralized and hierarchical structure of leadership is no guarantee that they will be the right one to join. However, even if the members of a group claim to have no central leadership, I suggest that you observe them for a while to discover who is really the one that holds sway. Hidden control is often more dangerous than obvious bad control.
What about groups formed for just studying, or “just to get together for celebrating the holidays?” These CAN be quite productive, but they also can be potential problem makers. Let me give you an example which I feel is illustrative.
Doug, Jeanie, Tom, Mary, and Beth used to get together each week to share their ideas and information they had gotten from their readings of various books and newsletters. After three months of this, they decided that they had learned enough, it was time to put some of their knowledge to use. It was decided that Beth would act has High Priestess and Tom as High Priest. They would celebrate Samhain in accord with a ritual that they had read in a book.
Came the fateful night. The circle was cast, the elements were invoked, and Beth called upon the Horned God to come into her High Priest, Tom, all in accord with what was written in the book. Tom started to shake uncontrollably. Jeanie, Tom’s girl friend, started to panic and screamed at Beth. Beth, scared by what was happening to Tom and not knowing what to do, screamed back. The two women argued until it finally came to blows. A candle was overturned and the altar cloth caught fire along with Jeanie’s hair. Mary quickly put out the fire and told Doug to call 911.
Tom and Jeanie both were taken to the hospital. A total of over $1700 was racked up at the hospital! Tom said that Beth should pay for part of it seeing as how she was part of “the cause.” More arguments… everybody took sides.
It has been five years since this happened. Nobody is talking with anybody else (even Tom and Jeanie) and none of them are studying anything whatsoever to help them understand themselves, Paganism, or their own spirituality. It’s a total loss all the way around. Too far fetched? I assure you, not at all. This story is fictional only in that the names were changed and it combines two incidents into one for the sake of illustrating what can happen when experience and wisdom are not valued fully.
But how, you might ask, could such a thing be prevented? In the first place, it could have been avoided by not doing a ritual in which there was not a complete understanding by all who participated. The people who accepted the roles of leaders should have been better prepared to deal with the unexpected. The “High Priest” should have had better control of himself and the “High Priestess” should have had better control of ALL of the participants. Other members should have had more trust in the person they had agreed to put in the role of leader. Everyone should have kept their heads and their tempers on circle… etc., etc.. In short, nobody should have attempted that which was clearly over their heads.
How could they have known it was over their heads? Simple: they never were what they pretended. They were NOT trained; they were NOT a cohesive and prepared circle; they were NOT aware of what was needed. Nobody was focused; nobody was in control of either themselves nor anybody else.
The position of High Priestess and High Priest should not be given out lightly, though many a person TAKES the title quite lightly and without any more qualifications than those I just mentioned. It has been the way for generations to pass that title on only to those who are FULLY qualified and who have the sense to handle the unexpected. To take on that role without proper training is to pretend to something you are not.
Let me explain a little about the dynamics of a coven. Probably the closest thing that we can compare it to is a marriage. The individuals within the coven NEED to be as close as that in order to fulfill their roles as helpers for the spiritual growth of each member. It is ONLY such a relationship that allows for criticism and intrusion at the level I am talking about. And it is only at this level of closeness that a real group-mind is possible. Each must be totally confident about the intentions and feelings of the rest for that person to truly see themselves through the eyes of the others. And everybody needs to know the others so well that they can intuitively adjust their own attitudes and movements to remain fully compatible with the rest (usually phrased, “knowing how to zig when the other zags”).
The leader of such a group must be able to keep everybody’s motives and methods in mind while steering a course for the group which will benefit each. This is either done very carefully or the group gets a new leader… or disbands. Not satisfying the needs of the individual can be temporarily compensated for by convincing that person that their sacrifice will be repaid at some future time. However, too much of that and the people begin to leave (or plan a revolt!). Of course, it is not possible to satisfy everybody all the time. But any group which is going to last must have leadership which will keep everybody happy enough with the way things are going to keep the group together.
The larger the number of people, the more difficult that becomes. The traditional “limit” has been 13 people. This, however, might be theoretically larger, what with modern day forms of communication available, etc., etc.. However, I know from experience that 13 people is a very large number to effectively lead in a group designed to enhance the well being, both spiritually and physically, of each of its members. Even when everybody is perfectly “tuned” to the rest of the group, the job of keeping that many people on course is difficult.
Deciding to join a coven is as big (if not even bigger) a responsibility as going into a marriage. If anybody doesn’t think that everything is right, it won’t have much chance of working. Although it is a disappointment, if you get turned down after asking “in,” just count your blessings that you didn’t end up joining only to end up in sad news for everybody. I was turned down for joining a coven that I dearly wanted to be a part of. I don’t know if it was or wasn’t the “right” decision, but it certainly was important that it not be the “wrong” one! Although I am very pleased with the coven I am in, I remember the sting of that disappointment even now. However, I am on very good terms with people in that coven, and THAT might not have been the case if I had become a member.
Let’s for the moment put aside all the dire warnings and gloomy scenarios. What are the positive aspects of becoming a student or a coven member? Why try for it at all? Isn’t it possible to just read a lot, live by the codes that have become pretty universal, maybe get together with friends to celebrate a holiday, and not have to bother with all these political and social pressures? Of course it is. And one can also design, build and fly a space ship without ever having to associate with those who already have some knowledge about the matter. It’s possible. But it doesn’t have nearly the likelihood of success, nor will it be likely to be as complete and wonderful as it could be without “putting up with” those pressures. Part of the wonder of religion, ANY religion, is the support and fellowship of those who have gone before us along the rocky path of the spirit.
The problem of finding a teacher and the problem of joining a coven have a common thread. I believe you can see the need for “Perfect Love and Perfect Trust” is vitally important in each situation. Finally, there is one other thing you should be aware of: what might happen when a person becomes the “student” of a person who is part of a coven? Will “graduation” amount to a promise to take that student into the coven? Will the “teacher” be effecting the coven by having a student who is not part of the coven? These are considerations which must be addressed by the coven, the teacher, and the student.
The etiquette of such a situation is complicated. Obviously, the first obligation the teacher has (other than to themselves) is to the coven of which they are a member. So the bargain that is struck with the student must not interfere with that obligation. The student has the right to expect a certain amount of consideration from the teacher, but should not assume that they can command top priority. The coven must allow the person who is acting as teacher the time and space necessary to perform their teaching duties if the student is to get a fair shake. This means that there should be some kind of coven code that covers this sort of situation. Otherwise, the teacher might make a bargain with the student that they later find they can not keep. Covens might wish to regulate who may or may not take students. Whatever the rule, the person offering to teach should inquire of the coven laws and leadership before offering any sort of bargain to the student.
Studentship under a person who is part of a coven, unless otherwise agreed upon beforehand, does NOT mean that “graduation” will lead to acceptance into the coven. As I have covered it above, it should be obvious why this is so. I also should note that if a person has been a student of someone who is of the XYZ tradition and they have studied well and have reached the point where the teacher has nothing more they can offer the student on a formal basis, it does NOT mean that the student can then go out and claim they have been “trained” in the XYZ tradition. For that to be a valid claim, it must come from the coven or a member of that tradition who has the privilege and the power to initiate into that tradition. This is known as “lineage” and is almost always regulated as to who can pass it on within any given tradition. Nothing is more insulting or provocative than for some person who has studied with a teacher to go out and proclaim themselves to be a High DooDoo of XYZ Tradition and attempt to start their own group. Don’t get me wrong: starting their own group, while usually a VERY dumb move without several years worth of experience, is not the problem here; unauthorized use of the reputation and name of the XYZ Tradition IS! Once again, the caution to check things out makes great sense. I have seen people find a teacher, six months later, leave them behind in a huff because they weren’t getting the “recognition” they figured they deserved, and a month later be at some gathering claiming this or that grand title of the tradition they just left (or some other one that nobody has heard of) and were ready to take members, students, and the position of “elder” within the community! This would be totally comical if not for the fact that newcomers are often swept away by this flimflam and their potential wasted! Although it would only end up being a way to cause terrible strife, I still wish there were some way to eliminate such foolish and fraudulent activities. The best that can be done is for everyone who knows the score to warn newcomers to check EVERYTHING out before they jump into ANY sort of arrangement! Carrying rumors or making slanderous remarks will serve no good. If the student doesn’t have the ability or desire to check out who they attach themselves to, they WILL get an education!
Make no mistake, to study through a teacher or be accepted into a coven is to embark upon a journey which tests your emotional, intellectual, and spiritual limits. It requires dedication and fortitude. It is NOT just something to do while waiting for your nails to dry. And there is no way that you can replace the time and energy put into such a journey. Don’t waste your life seeking a teacher or a group unless you are sure it will NOT be a waste. Patience is essential; decisions made in haste will bring regret. Take the time and make the effort that such a decision deserves. If your choice is right, you will not spoil it by making sure. And, if you find just the right combination, the results will be more fulfilling than any other activity known.
It is my sincere hope that this booklet has been useful to you. It has originally been provided free as a part of one of my lectures. NO CHARGE IS TO BE MADE FOR THIS BOOKLET. If you wish to make copies of this booklet, feel free to do so as long as nothing is changed and all pages are included. A small, reasonable fee for copying expenses may be made if necessary, but the intent of writing this is to provide sensible advice for earnest seekers, NOT to make a profit. The path of the priesthood is never bettered by moneys. If you have read this booklet and feel you know the message contained in it, please pass it on to another who may benefit from it.
Blessed be… Blacksun
Blacksun has been High Priest of a coven since 1978. He, along with his wife, Shadowhawk, have trained dozens of students and initiated many more to Wicca. Blacksun is author of Three Times ‘Round the Circle, a book about creating religious rituals. A small pamphlet, The Elements of Beginning Ritual Construction, which is still published and distributed by Circle Sanctuary, was the precursor to his book. The pamphlet was written in 1982. It was included as part of the Sources for Study of Nonconventional Religious Groups in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century America, a resources library for the Institute for the Study of American Religion at Santa Barbara, California, founded by J. Gordon Milton.
Blacksun and Shadowhawk have been conducting private classes on Paganism and Wicca for over ten years and discussion leaders and workshop facilitators for longer than that. If you are interested in further correspondence with Blacksun, write:
Seattle, WA 98103
Please send a self addressed, stamped envelope with any such correspondence.