OLD WORLD WITCHCRAFT- The Value of Tradition
In a metaphorical sense, I often envision Witchcraft (and Wicca) as a large ancient tree. The roots of a tree are not readily evident, but they are the oldest part. They represent tradition. In each season the branches sprout new limbs, and new blossoms appear. These are the new ways, the next generation positioning itself in time and place. In this sense, the tree is ever ancient and ever new. Sadly, if the roots are not nourished the tree itself dies, and with it all that it had to offer to ongoing generations.
I was raised in a household with many traditions. My mother was a native Italian who immigrated to the US at the close of War World II, and she brought with her the ways of her culture. My father was born and raised in the US, and my family embraced both American and Italian customs. It was simply the way of things.
My Italian relatives came to visit us in the summer, and I recall one such visit that had a profound effect upon me. My uncle explained to me that in Italy when someone leaves the house, they go individually to each person wherever they are in the house, and inform them about their destination. When I asked why, my uncle looked intensely at me and replied “Because none of your family at home should ever have to say we don’t know where you are.” Yes! The roots of family are about connection to the whole. During another visit, my cousin was getting to ready to leave the house for the evening while we were all sitting in the living room. Before leaving, she went to each family member individually and said “good night.” She did this in order of age from oldest first, to youngest. This honored each person individually in a way that “Good night everyone” cannot do. It was very touching to watch the difference it made.
Not long ago I watched a TV show in which a man visited a tribe in South Africa that lives now as humans did 20,000 years ago. During his visit he was welcomed to witness an ancient rite in which the shamans passed around a potion to the tribal members. It was designed to invoke the ancestors. As the rite progressed, dancing took place, and once seated the tribal members fell into a trance. During the filming of the rite, the man spoke to the camera and commented somewhat bewildered “I am 21st century man removed from everything I know.” Observing the ritual had a profound effect upon him, and as the rite concluded he wept without understanding why. He was unaware of his awakened connection to something so far removed from his reality that his soul recognized but his mind could not fathom.
Our distant ancestors realized an “enchanted worldview” from which grew our current beliefs in magic, spirits, and interaction with the Otherworld. The core beliefs were passed on in various ways, and some exist today in folklore, fairytales, myth and legend. Like an archaeologist we can brush away the covering and expose what lies deeper within. To do this we lift off the veneer of the exoteric and rise up the esoteric.
In modern Witchcraft and Wicca it is easy to see the presence of old concepts mixed in with relatively modern ones. Today we recognize the many systems and traditions that comprise modern practice. The body is new but the spirit is old. By analogy, this is not unlike the concept of the soul continuously incarnating in new bodies within new time periods. In this light, the soul is the tradition and the body is the new expression.
Many people today think of a “Tradition” as restrictive and confining. They feel it denies them their individuality and spontaneity. These people enjoy the freedom of drawing from different sources and using what best suits them at the time. But is a Tradition actually restrictive and confining, or have we misunderstood its true value and mistook it for something to avoid?
I like to use the following analogy. If I was a Contractor and you wanted me to build you a house, I would do so using traditional methods of construction. In this way the foundation is strong, the walls bear weight properly, and the plumbing and electricity function as needed and expected. However, I do not tell you what colors to paint the interior rooms, how to decorate, what rooms to use for what, or how to live your life within the house. Instead, I simply provide you with a home and a place of sanctuary. It is there whenever you need to return to it or take advantage of it.
Over the past decades I practiced several different systems and traditions. I also worked with eclectic materials. This provided me with the experience of both worlds as opposed to relying upon hearsay and assumption to form my views and opinions. This was important to me, and from this I drew an appreciation for the value of each approach and method of practice.
Today I teach and practice a tradition known as Ash, Birch and Willow. It is a non-cultural system of Witchcraft that embraces the commonalities of European forms. I believe that when we strip away the cultural expressions, and examine the core commonalities, we then come upon the oldest parts. These I call the roots or “rooted ideas” of Witchcraft. To distinguish them from purely modern ideas, I call the rooted ways “Old World Witchcraft.” Intentionally or not, there have always been the tenders of the rooted ways. From the rooted places spring forth the Inner Traditions that have stood the test of time.
Occultist William Gray once wrote something pertinent to what I want to convey in this column piece:
“So what you are being given from the Inner Tradition is not the dead and mummified remains of previous superstitions, but a living, active, and authentic spiritual survival from our earliest existence on earth, which has been growing and changing through the centuries because it has been cared for and nourished by many generations of humans who realized the value of what they were entrusted with, and did their very best to ensure you receive it in a fit condition for furthering.” – William Gray, Western Inner Workings
Like the process of reincarnation itself, the vessels wither away but the spirit continues on. There is liberation in knowing that we need not debate origins and survivals. We need only accept that the Spirit of the Land continues to teach each generation as it did in ancient times. Much of what we know about ancestral knowledge and wisdom comes from ancient writings. Curiously some of them speak of lost or hidden knowledge, but they were written at a time when seemingly nothing was yet lost to conquests or displaced religion. These are the “lost cauldron” tales, and perhaps the Bards who told them meant them for future generations; maybe they were meant for a time in which the Cauldron of Memory seemed like a lingering fantasy.
The ancient cauldron stories speak of lost or hidden cauldrons of enlightenment that require a hero and a quest in order to retrieve them. The tales tell us that such cauldrons lie in the depths of the earth, which is a metaphor revealing that we must descend into our own innermost selves. At the very core of our being, when we encounter the spirit of our DNA, we realize that nothing is forgotten of the past.
In the Ash, Birch and Willow tradition we work with the primal ideas of Witchcraft as part of the Enchanted Worldview. Each member is a hero involved in her or his journey of descent to find the lost cauldron. The Ancestral Spirit is the guiding light that illuminates the path. We look deeply into the ancient tales, and follow the words of the Wisdom Keepers throughout time. Let me share the following vision with you that is at the heart of the Ash, Birch and Willow tradition.
Our distant ancestors were forest dwellers. Theirs was a world of enclosure. Above them was the canopy of trees, and all around them was the forest, an endless realm with no horizon. Through the canopy above, our ancestors saw the stars, moon and sun. These must have looked to belong to another world above and beyond the enclosure of humankind. It seems likely that such was the seed from which the ideas of heaven worlds and the “home of the gods” arose.
The world was the Forest, and the trees were the All. Birth, life, death and rebirth were the never ending theme of the Forest. There was no need for cosmic gods who created the Universe. The Antlered-God of the Forest provided for the life of the body, and above the canopy “She of the White Round” (showing herself as the full moon) provided for the journey of the soul. The ever-changing and ever-returning phases of the moon taught our ancestors the Great Mysteries: Where do we come from, why are we here, and what happens after life? She of the White Round, and He of the Deep Wooded Places, accompanied the limited walk of the flesh and the timeless journey of the soul.
One of the foremost teachings in Ash, Birch and Willow is that the artist is reflected in the artwork. For this reason we look deeply into Nature, and particularly into the Greenwood Realm, the Plant World. It is here that the Creators emphasized the concept of cycles and renewal. The divine theme of birth, life, death and renewal is ever present in the Creator’s model.
A related teaching is that plants possess spirits with them, much like the idea that human bodies contain souls. A mystical concept in Ash, Birch and Willow is that the essence of living things passed into the earth at death (and through decomposition). Soil contains minerals, which are crystalline formations. Crystals hold energy, and in this light the memory of all the lived is contained in the material earth below. We call this Shadow, the organic memory of the earth. Plants absorb minerals from the soil, which means that the indwelling spirits also tap into Shadow memory. The spirits of plants can become important teachers and allies through gaining a rapport with them.
It is important to note that Ash, Birch and Willow does not identify itself as “Traditional Witchcraft” and is more than simply a system of magic. It also does not tap into ancient Judaic or Middle Eastern culture where one can find ideas about Satan and legends linked to Cain and Abel. Instead the roots of Ash, Birch and Willow attach to pre-Christian European Pagan soil. We draw upon the primal levels of nourishment, something more akin to pre-cultural modes of perception.
Nature teaches us that when something stops growing then it begins to die. Therefore we embrace the “ever new” philosophy as well as the “ever ancient” one. The Ash, Birch and Willow tradition shares various elements of modern Witchcraft and Wicca such as the Wheel of the Year, the ritual circle, and the elemental directions. However, we work with them through a primal imagery. For example, we do not use the term “Elementals” but instead we use the term Aesthesia. The Aesthesia are the primal consciousness of Elemental beings as opposed to the personification of them as Sylphs, Salamanders, Undines and Gnomes (or quarter guardians).
In Ash, Birch and Willow, we strive to connect to a view we believe was held by our distant ancestors. There was a time when humans first wondered about the forces around without envisioning gods and spirits. It is reasonably certain that “what is doing this?” came before “the gods are doing this.” It is formlessness on the verge of becoming formation. This is one reason we use titles instead of names; for example we work with an entity we call She of the Thorn-Blooded Rose. This entity opens the way into the spirit-levels of the Greenwood.
The oldest word in Western Culture to denote a witch is the ancient Greek word Pharmaceute. The etymology of this word refers to an intimate knowledge of plants. In this light, witches can be thought of as the Plant People. This offers us a lineage back to the spiritual and magical relationship between witches and the Plant Realm. Through plants and their indwelling spirits we reach deeply into the organic memory of the earth, and from there we can retrieve the essence of ancient traditions. These are the time-proven and time-honored ways of those who came before us. In this way we honor tradition but apply it to the needs of modern life in contemporary ways. We are ever-ancient and ever-new.