Below: Gerald B. Gardner, founder of modern Wicca
More differences between Wicca, Traditional British Witchcraft & folk magick
This is not to denigrate nor edify any particular tradition. I’m just pointing out that there are some fundamental differences between modern Wicca, Traditional British Isles Witchcraft, and British Isles folk magick and folkloric traditions.
Of course, these customs have borrowed from one another, some of the systems have merged, others have been changed to adapt to modern times.
Lord & Lady, part 1:
Modern Wicca often considers deities to be different aspects, or forms, of one universal God and the singular Great Goddess. They are usually portrayed in this binary fashion, male and female. They are expressed in the age / life stage forms of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and Youth, Father, and Grandfather / Sage.
Sometimes, in Wicca and in Brit Trad W’craft, the deities have dark and light aspects. For example, the goddess Ceileach is viewed as the darker, wintery aspect of Brighid / Bridget, and the Buca / Cernunnos has a dark, chthonic, autumn and winter personae: Buca Ddu, and the bright, fertile, springtime, celebratory aspect: the Buca Gwydyn. This sometimes occurs in folklore, as well – the two examples listed here are from Irish and Cornish legend, respectively.
Yet us folkies often see the deities as belonging to pantheons, families, or even as our own ancestors. Donia / Danu / Dôn is always a mother. Others can change form with the seasons or with their aspects – fertile Cernunnos / Buca is young, as a huntsman and provider he’s a father, and in his underground / wealth mode, he’s elderly and balding. He is killed by the Sacred Hunt and revived as his own offspring. Yes our gods can die – but they come back – as everything does. Rhiannon is a maiden in springtime, then descends to the Underworld with her bridegroom, Arawn, then becomes a mother.
Folklore doesn’t always have binary or sexually “fertile” deities, either – Gofannon can be viewed as Gay, Loki is often non-binary, Cerridwen is impregnated by swallowing one corn of barley, the Angau is pretty much asexual, and Pan bangs anything that moves. Roman deities that came to Britain were originally youthful and immortal, but while in the islands, they sometimes assumed the trifecta of youth – parent – elder. An example is the Hecate triplicate statuette in the British Museum that shows the Goddess as young and slim, then more matronly, then elderly, double-chinned, with drooping breasts, below.
Lord & Lady, part 2:
Many Wiccan priests / priestesses represent a gendered deity while in ritual, taking on that aspect. They call themselves by a “craft name”, often the moniker of a God or Goddess, sometimes a name with magickal significance. Gerald Gardner and his priestess (Dorothy Clutterbuck?) called themselves Scire and Dafo. Many use the honorific “Lord” or “Lady” during ritual. You’ll find a lot of Lady Cerridwens and Lord Pans in modern Wicca. This is done to honor the deities, to connect with them and take on their personae in ritual, but also to gain respect for Witchcraft within general society – the “Overculture”. After all, many Catholic priests or nuns call themselves Father Thomas or Sister Assumpta after Biblical figures or events. Historically, changing one’s name may have been a way to escape persecution. It also helps to put people in the mindset to perform a magickal rite, setting aside their mundane personae to be able to work magick.
However, I never heard of this custom before encountering Wiccans. Since Cymri (Welsh) people had lots of negative run-ins with royalty and nobility, we don’t often use the terms “Lord” or “Lady” for our clergy. Not many oldline witches in the witch trial transcripts called themselves either one. Back in the day, the word was “goodwife” or “mister” or the name of one’s profession, like Sion the Taylor, or Taylor Sion… but many Cymri people did not have last names until emigrating. We were Clem from Carmarthen or Polly ap Rhys – names that reflect location or lineage. Nowadays, we use the average titles for ourselves – Mr. or Mrs. – and often just our first names.
I’ve heard that some Ceremonial Magicians call themselves Magister or Magistra, or Frater and Mater. Yet those still utilize binary terms.*
Lord Solinox SilverStar of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church uses the non-binary term “Priestex” to define themself. I’m told that Wiccan ministers are seeking a non-binary title of office for clergy to possibly replace “Lord” or “Lady”. They state: "Being the first nonbinary third-degree that I know of in my tradition and running my coven the way I do...I feel sometimes like I'm blazing a trail, but more like I'm bringing things into alignment with the world as it is in reality. The binary is just a symbol, just as the elements are. Real life is wibbly wobbly, spectrums of blending, flows of energy swirling."
I recall my offspring, Rhiannon, avataring (taking on the aspect, channeling, being possessed by) the death god Arawn, who presents as male. But they also avatared Mawb, the folkloric hunt goddess and early-modern Queen of the Fae, who is quite feminine and motherly.
*Speaking of Binary:
A horned Lord and a Goddess of either winter or the stars. Pretty!
Gerald Gardner was very much into the idea of polarity, or a binary form of magick. Raising energy was done in the same way as a battery works, by a duality of positive and negative, also male and female, or light and dark, or summer and winter. Energy was raised by putting the two states in contrast or opposition to one another (or conjunction, or connection). For example, the Great Rite using the chalice to represent female and the athame to represent male was performed by a guy Priest and a girl Priestess. Joining the two states together creates a magickal “spark” of fertile energy. This idea may have come from Hermeticism / Ceremonial Magick, as well.
Some Witchcraft traditions have males teaching females and vice versa. Gentlemen may initiate ladies, and vice versa. In ritual circles, men and women stood in a boy-girl-boy-girl pattern. Males aspected (channeled, avatared) male deities and females summoned or avatared female beings. God and Goddess together create fertility. We folk magick folks had some of those customs, too, including male-female couples doing sexual activities outdoors in springtime to increase the yields of the crops, gardens, and the farm animals’ fertility. I don’t know if Gay sex has the same result, having never tried it as a ritual thing. It might work – it could be just the joy and power that any sexual energy contributes toward making really big abundant tomatoes.
There’s some debate about the function of polarity magick in some modern Wicca and Witchcraft covens and groups. Some insist on maintaining the traditional male-female boundaries. Others are working to be inclusive of various gender expressions. Nowadays there are a lot more acknowledged gender expressions than there were back when Gardner was exploring British Witchcraft and world systems of magick. There is a greater acceptance of different forms of sexuality and biology. And that’s a blessing.
We folk magick practitioners mostly did the gender thing when it was women teaching girls the menarche rites about menstruation, breast-feeding, armpit hair, and all of that, and men teaching their sons about whatever they do – it probably involves football. Usually, women attended childbirth. Mostly men did agriculture and harvest games. But that was often due to proximity – women nursed babies, so they mostly stayed in the home; men were physically stronger, so they worked in the fields. There were and are a few gender-based tasks, but hey, there’s female blacksmiths, like Goddess Bridget, female hunters, like Mawb, and male entities in charge of home care, like the Bwbach. Art throughout the ages portrays females doing agricultural labor. We now know, from archeology and anthropology studies, that females helped bring in the harvest and hunted in pre-historic times. Gay men often guarded the women and children while most of the men were away at war. Otherwise, there wasn’t much differentiation in magick according to gender or biological sex. Cunning folk and herbalists were of all genders.
I have a kinda funny, kinda grumpy story: We named our legal Pagan church / group after specific deities, the Welsh / Cymric God Llew (craftsman, trickster, solar deity, father of CuCullain, conflated w/ Lugh, Lucas, Lugas, sometimes Lyr) and the Goddess Donia, (mother, land, nurturer, conflated with Dôn, Denea, Danu, et al. Wiccan folks changed the name of the group to "House of Goddess and God" in English. Then other Wiccan people told me that the Cymraeg words for God is "Duw" and Goddess is "Dduwes" -- so my translation was wrong, and that there wasn't just one God and one Goddess in the Cymric / Welsh pantheon. Well, duh!
OK, done being crabby now. :)
Elements / Directions:
This past Samhain / Nos Calan Gaeaf, I attended a wonderful workshop given by Silver Phoenix at the Beyond the Gate gathering. It was about incorporating the elements and elementals into one’s own personal life, called “Elemental Energy Balancing”. Of course, it utilized the traditional Wiccan and Ceremonial Magick model of four elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water. It was a lovely experience, allowing participants to commune with symbols of the elements and bring their power into themselves.
Silver Phoenix discussed Fire, and how it is an alchemical reaction, changing material such as wood into another form, such as ash, in the meantime releasing energy. And that was an unusual thing for me to consider. When folkies work with the Directions or Elements at all, it’s more about their forms in Nature. Again, not a value judgment – just commentary on the various approaches to magick.
We people of Celtic origins don’t really have directions such as Earth = North, either. Earth is down, the ground, the land, the Underworld, the material plane. Air is up, and breathing, and thought and memory, and voiced things like poetry and song. Water is over there somewhere – rivers, lakes, wellsprings, rain, cleansing and quenching. All of these conditions are needed to grow food and to sustain life.
However, we really don’t consider fire as an element, as a conscious being, as a living thing in the same manner as the other three are considered as intelligent. The earth, air (sky) and water are represented by deities and entities and are personified. Yet fire usually is not. Fire is often a man-made condition, and requires earth (wood or coal) and air to survive. A force brings it into being – striking a flint and steel or a match, or sometimes lightning. Water removes fire, so it’s the opposite. Fire has power, but we don’t view it as a being, particularly.
I’m told that some of these concepts may have come to Wicca through the Hermetic practices of Ceremonial Magick. Or perhaps Gerald Gardner brought them to Witchcraft after visiting Native Americans’ rites on his trip to the USA. The First Nations honor four directions with four elements, and four colors that represent them. Ceremonies begin in the east, where the sun rises.
Anyway. Wiccans and most British Traditional Witches base much of their praxes upon interaction with the elements and elemental beings. For example, fire represents change, ambition, courage, passion, sexual love, electrical connections, and action. It is viewed as dwelling in the South, and its corresponding magickal entity is salamanders or dragons. Wiccan people strive to attain balance between the elements and to have a working partnership with the elementals (from what I can see – my experiences, not necessarily “THE truth”.) They and Ceremonial Magicians call upon the elements in ceremonies, they utilize symbols for them, the elements align with planets and astrological signs – for example, Taurus is Earthy, Pisces is Watery.
Wiccans, Witches, and Ceremonial Magicians do these things because they work.
After 30-some years of practicing with Wiccans and other Pagans, I’ve come to an understanding with several of these concepts – one universal Goddess and God, working with elements, and so forth. But I’m nowhere near proficient. The beauty of magickal practice is time and work can help one to improve and to develop an affinity with different beings and folkways.
A.C. Fisher Aldag
Chronicler of Cymric Folklore, Granmother and grouch. Enjoyer of good food.
Common Magick from Llewellyn Worldwide
Witches & Pagans # 38 & # 39 from BBI
Llewellyn's Witches' Companion 2022 & 2023 from Llewellyn Worldwide