British Traditional Wicca — Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Wicca?
- “Wicca” is an Anglo-Saxon word originally applied to one of the branches of the ancient Pagan clergy. The word is the ancestor to the modern English “witch”, and many Wiccans call themselves witches and use “witchcraft” as an alternate name for their religion. In terms of the modern Craft, before the 1960s only the British Traditional Wicca used this name, and we still believe that it only properly belongs to us. More recently, “Wicca” has been applied to a large number of various survivals, revivals and reconstructions of Pagan religious beliefs and practices.
Although in recent years the diversity of the people who call themselves Wiccan has made a comprehensive definition impossible, some general statements can be made: All Wiccans worship a Goddess or Goddesses; most also worship a God or Gods. Practically all hold rituals inside a magic circle, usually at the time of the Full Moon and eight Sabbats. Practically all believe in and practice some form of magic.
- What is British Traditional Wicca?
- British Traditional Wicca (BTW) is the name we give to a number of denominations of Wiccans who have received (via initiatory lineage) and maintain an established body of lore and practice passed down from generation to generation. The best known of these are the Gardnerians, of which there are distinct British and American branches.
Alexandrians, Mohsians and Central Valley (of California) Wicca are also British Traditional Wiccans.
- What is the difference between BTW and other people who call themselves Wiccan?
- Other people who call themselves Wicca do not have the initiatory lineage mentioned above. In addition, the following features of BTW may not all be present in other paths which call themselves Wiccan:
- Members are formed into small (3-13) groups called “covens” and are led by a High Priestess and/or High Priest.
- There is a formal ceremony of initiation which includes a solemn oath never to reveal certain secrets to outsiders.
- Initiates are oathbound to never charge money for initiation and training into the Craft of the Wise.
- There are usually three degrees or levels of initiation, called “Priest/ess”, “High Priest/ess” and “Elder”. (This may lead to some confusion, as coven leaders, who are usually Elders, are often called “High Priestess” or “High Priest” of the coven.)
British Traditional Wiccans typically call upon the names of one Goddess and one God in their rituals. Most also acknowledge the Dryghtyn, who is not personified but represents the unified spiritual essence of the universe, from which both Goddess and God sprang.
- Why can’t a person self-initiate into BTW?
- To a BT Wiccan, self-initiation is a contradiction in terms. To us the ritual of initiation is performed not only to signal an individual’s dedication to serving the Gods, but also their admittance to the community of BTW.
- Do members of BTW think they’re better than other Pagans?
- Not at all. BTW strongly emphasizes the right and responsibility of each individual to find the religious path that is right for them. Some BTW members also belong to other Pagan paths, including the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD), the Church of All Worlds (CAW), and Asatru.
- Why is BTW divided into separate traditions?
- Each branch of the BTW has its own story. Some developed a separate identity because geographical separation from their parent stock. Others were formed due to political disagreements (Wiccans are only human, too).
- How can I find out more about the various BTW traditions?
- A great resource for information about individual traditions, orders, and lineage can be found at the index listing provided by the Beaufort House web site. Note: Not all of the traditions, groups etc. listed at this site are what we consider to be BTW. The listing has not been updated since 2001.
- Why is BTW so secretive?
- Actually there are a number of reasons. We refuse to disclose who our members are without their express permission. This is not just simple courtesy; there exist many cases in our so-called enlightened times of Wiccans who have been discriminated against in the courts and other public institutions and even threatened with violence. Wiccans may choose to “go public” if they wish, but we will not make that choice for them.
We don’t discuss what happens at initiation and elevation rituals to those who have not undergone them for a very practical reason. An initiation ceremony, Wiccan or not, works best when it comes as a surprise to the person being initiated. To do otherwise would prevent the emotional, non-intellectual response which is absolutely necessary for a true initiation.
Finally, a coven’s rituals and workings often are, and should be, intensely emotional and personal experiences. This cannot happen without a strong feeling of safety and privacy which would be impossible without rules making these activities private.
- Some call BTW a “Mystery Tradition”. What does this mean?
- “Mystery”, in a religious sense, means both the secrets of the religion and the ecstatic aspects of a spiritual practice which cannot be explained but must be experienced. As a Mystery Tradition, Wicca exemplifies both of these meanings. We take certain oaths at initiation that prohibit us from disclosing our mysteries (secrets) to those who have not been initiated. We also promote, publicly and privately, the mysteries (ecstatic experiences) which give our religion much of its authenticity.
- Why is BTW secretive about magic?
- For one thing, we believe that our methods of making magic actually work and can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Magic is governed by the universal rule of “cause and effect” which simply means that for every action there is a reaction. For this reason we only speak of magic to people we’ve initiated, whom we believe to be responsible. Initiates must be willing to take the time necessary to learn properly and must have a clear understanding of Wiccan ethics.
- What are Wiccan ethics?
- Much more can be written about Wiccan ethics than can described in a brief FAQ entry. A brief summary: All Wiccan ethics proceeds from the Wiccan Rede: “‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt.” We take this to mean that as long as your actions do not inflict harm on someone or something, you are free to do as you wish. There are some things that are so universally considered harmful, such as disclosing the name of a Wiccan without their permission, that they are called “Craft Laws”. Our ethics have a practical side. We believe that whatever you send magically returns to you three times over. Thus if you send curses, you will be cursed; if you send blessings, you will be blessed.
- Why are all the members of some BTW branches called priests and priestesses?
- In British Traditional Wicca, everyone who attends a ritual is a participant, not an observer. Even though the ritual may be led by a High Priestess and/or High Priest, everyone in the circle takes an active part. There has been much confusion on this point, because in other religions the priest performs the ritual for the laity, who are expected to be passive observers.
- Is BTW hierarchical?
- Each coven is led by a High Priestess and/or High Priest. In some traditions it must be a High Priestess. In every human group, leaders will always arise, even in groups which consider themselves totally egalitarian. In BTW, leadership is formally vested in those who have the most knowledge, experience (at least in that tradition) and have taken the responsibility to form and/or maintain the group. This is a form of quality control: If we wish the Craft to continue and flourish, we must have responsible leadership.
Those who would become leaders are chosen for their abilities and, especially, their commitment. It takes 3-5 years (more or less) of study and practice to become qualified to form and lead a coven. Most teachers don’t expect their students to go through extraordinary privations along the way – dedication, a willingness to learn, and an honest effort are valued above perfection when given a task to complete. Elders are there to foster the growth of the individual, not to judge them by rote.
New coven leaders must also provide everything that is needed for a coven to operate, including a good deal of their own time. British Traditional coven leaders tend to be the busiest people we know!
There are formal limits to the coven leaders’ authority. Almost universally, they may not demand sexual favors or money of their students (although some covens have dues, used to pay for supplies). Also, in most groups, new people may not be initiated into the coven except with the agreement of all of the existing members.
In most traditions the High Priestess and High Priest are as far as hierarchy goes: each coven is considered an independent, autonomous unit.
- Why does BTW have three degrees?
- BTW emphasizes training, experience, and responsibility. When someone has had a certain amount of this training and experience and is ready to accept additional responsibility, we feel that it is only right and proper to acknowledge this.