Modern Witchcraft Traditions

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Witchcraft Traditions

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In the Pagan community, there are a number of different spiritual traditions that fall under the different headings of Wicca, NeoWicca, or Paganism. Many simply identify as traditions of witchcraft, some within the Wiccan framework, and some outside of it. There are different types and styles of witchcraft traditions—some may be right for you, and others not so much. While some groups, such as the Dianic covens and Gardnerian Wiccan lineages are fairly prominent in the Pagan community, there are also thousands of other traditions. Let's take a look at a few of the variations in spiritual paths among some of the better known traditions of witchcraft and Paganism—some of the differences may surprise you!

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Alexandrian Wicca

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Origins of Alexandrian Wicca:

Formed by Alex Sanders and his wife Maxine, Alexandrian Wicca is very similar to the Gardnerian tradition. Although Sanders claimed to have been initiated into witchcraft in the early 1930s, he was also a member of a Gardnerian coven before breaking off to start his own tradition in the 1960s. Alexandrian Wicca is typically a blend of ceremonial magic with heavy Gardnerian influences and a dose of Hermetic Kabbalah mixed in. However, as with most other magical traditions, it is important to keep in mind that not everyone practices the same way.

Alexandrian Wicca focuses on the polarity between the genders, and rites and ceremonies often dedicate equal time to the God and the Goddess. While Alexandrian ritual tool use and the names of the deities differ from Gardnerian tradition, Maxine Sanders has been famously quoted as saying, “If it works, use it.” Alexandrian covens do a good deal of work with ceremonial magic, and they meet during new moonsfull moons, and for the eight Wiccan sabbats. 

In addition, the Alexandrian Wiccan tradition holds that all participants are priests and priestesses; everyone is able to commune with the Divine, therefore there is no laity.

Influences from Gardner:

Similar to the Gardnerian tradition, Alexandrian covens initiate members into a degree system. Some begin training at a neophyte level and then advance to First Degree. In other covens, a new initiate is automatically given the title of First Degree, as a priest or priestess of the tradition. Typically, initiations are performed in a cross-gender system—a female priestess must initiate a male priest, and a male priest must initiate female members of the tradition.

According to Ronald Hutton, in his book Triumph of the Moon, many of the differences between Gardnerian Wicca and Alexandrian Wicca have blurred over the past few decades. It is not uncommon to find someone who is degreed in both systems or to find a coven of one tradition that accepts a member degreed in the other system.

Who Was Alex Sanders?

A Witchvox article by an author listed only as an Elder of the Alexandrian Tradition says, "Alex was flamboyant and, among other things, a born showman. He played the press at every opportunity, much to the dismay of more conservative Wiccan Elders of the time. Alex also was known for being a healer, diviner, and a powerful Witch and magician. His forays into the media led to the publication of the romanticized biography King of the Witches, by June Johns, and later the publication of the classic Wiccan "coven biography, What Witches Do, by Stewart Farrar. The Sanders became household names in the UK during the 60's and 70's, and are responsible to a great degree for bringing the Craft into the public eye for the first time."

Sanders passed away on April 30, 1988, after a battle with lung cancer, but his influence and the impact of his tradition is still felt today. There are numerous Alexandrian groups in the United States and Britain, most of which maintain some degree of secrecy, and continue to keep their practices and other information oathbound. Included under this umbrella is the philosophy that one must never out another Wiccan; privacy is a core value.

Contrary to popular belief, Sanders never made his tradition's Book of Shadows public, at least not in its entirety. While there are collections of Alexandrian information available to the general public—both in print and online—these are not the full tradition and were generally designed as training materials for new initiates. The only way to access a complete Alexandrian BOS, or the full collection of information about the tradition itself, is to be initiated into a coven as an Alexandrian Wiccan.

Maxine Sanders Today

Today, Maxine Sanders has retired from the work that she and her husband spent much of their lives on, and practices alone. However, she still makes herself available for occasional consultations. From Maxine's webpage, "Today, Maxine practices the Art Magical and celebrates the Craft’s rituals either in the mountains or in her stone cottage, Bron Afon. Maxine practices her Magic alone; she has retired from the work of teaching. Her vocation as a Priestess includes counseling those who are in need of kindness, truth, and hope. She is often approached by those in the Craft who are not too proud to test the strength of the shoulders of those who have gone before. Maxine is a highly respected Priestess of the Sacred Mysteries. She has encouraged, enabled and inspired students of the Priesthood to take on the conscious mantle of their spiritual potential. She believes the catalyst for that inspiration comes from the Cauldron of the Goddess in all its guises."

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British Traditional

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British Traditional Wicca, or BTW, is an all-purpose category used to describe some of the New Forest traditions of Wicca. Gardnerian and Alexandrian are the two best-known, but there are some smaller subgroups as well. The term "British Traditional Wicca" seems to be used in this manner more in the United States than in England. In Britain, the BTW label is sometimes used to apply to traditions which claim to predate Gerald Gardner and the New Forest covens.

Although only a few Wiccan traditions fall under the "official" heading of BTW, there are many offshoot groups which can certainly claim kinship with the British Traditional Wiccans. Typically, these are groups which have broken off from a BTW initiatory line, and formed new traditions and practices of their own, while still being loosely connected with BTW.

One can only claim to be part of British Traditional Wicca if they (a) are formally initiated, by a lineaged member, into one of the groups that falls under the BTW heading, and (b) maintain a level of training and practice that is consistent with the BTW standards.

In other words, much like the Gardnerian tradition, you can't simply proclaim yourself to be British Trad Wiccan.

Joseph Carriker, an Alexandrian priest, points out in a Patheos article that BTW traditions are orthopraxic in nature. He says, "We do not mandate belief; we mandate practice. In other words, we do not care what you believe; you may be agnostic, polytheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, animistic, or any variety of other classification of human belief. We care only that you learn and pass on the rites as they were taught to you. Initiates must have similar experiences with the rites, though the conclusions they come to as a result of them may be wildly different. In some religions, belief creates practice. In our priesthood, practice will create belief."

Geography doesn't necessarily determine whether or not someone is part of BTW. There are branches of BTW covens located in the United States and other countries—again, the key is the lineage, teachings and practice of the group, not the location.

British Traditional Witchcraft

It's important to recognize, however, that there are many people who are practicing a traditional form of British witchcraft that is not necessarily Wiccan in nature. Author Sarah Anne Lawless defines traditional witchcraft as "A modern witchcraft, folk magic, or spiritual practice based on the practices and beliefs of witchcraft in Europe and the colonies from the early modern period which ranged from the 1500s to the 1800s... there really were practicing witches, folk magicians, and magical groups during this time, but their practices and beliefs would have been tinged with Catholic-Christian overtones and mythology – even if thinly veneered on top of the Pagan ones... Cunning folk are a good example of the survival of such traditions even up to the mid-1900s in rural areas of the British Isles."

As always, keep in mind that the words witchcraft and Wicca are not synonymous. While it's entirely possible to practice a traditional version of witchcraft that pre-dates Gardner, and many people do it, it's not necessarily true that what they are practicing is British Traditional Wicca. As mentioned above, there are certain requirements in place, put there by members of the Gardnerian-based traditions, that determine whether a practice is Wiccan, or whether it is witchcraft.

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Eclectic Witchcraft

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Eclectic Wicca is an all-purpose term applied to witchcraft traditions, often NeoWiccan, that don't fit into any specific definitive category. Many solitary Wiccans follow an eclectic path, but there are also covens that consider themselves eclectic. A coven or individual may use the term "eclectic" for a variety of reasons. 

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Correllian Nativist

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The Correllian Nativist Tradition of Wicca traces its lineage to Orpheis Caroline High-Correll. According to the group's website, the tradition is based upon the teachings of members of the High-Correll family, who "were descended from a line of Cherokee Didanvwisgi who intermarried with a line of Scottish Traditional Witches, whose descendants were further influenced by Aradian Witchcraft and by the Spiritualist Church." In the 1980s, the family opened up their tradition to members of the public.

There is some debate in the Wiccan community as to whether the Correllian tradition is actually Wicca, or simply a family-based form of witchcraft. Non-Correllians point out that the Correllians cannot trace their lineage back to the New Forest covens of British Traditional Wicca. The Correllians say that they're entitled to claim Wiccan status, because of "Lady Orpheis’ claimed Scottish Traditional lineage, and also upon her Aradian lineage."

The Correllian Church is affiliated with WitchSchool, an online correspondence curriculum that grants students degrees in Wicca through a series of lessons.

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Covenant of the Goddess

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Covenant of the Goddess, or COG, is a Wiccan tradition that formed in the mid-1970s as a response to the rise in public interest in witchcraft, as well as the increasing awareness of feminist spirituality. COG began as a collection of elders from a variety of Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, who got together with the idea of creating a central religious organization for people of varied backgrounds.

COG is not a true tradition in and of itself, but a group of several member traditions all operating under an umbrella set of bylaws and guidelines. They hold annual conferences, work to educate the public, hold rituals, and work on community outreach projects. COG members have often spoken out to help correct public misconceptions about Wicca and modern witchcraft. COG offers scholarships and educational opportunities to qualified individuals, and will help with legal aid in religious discrimination cases.

From the Covenant of the Goddess website, the group has a Code of Ethics which must be followed in order for one to obtain membership. Memberships are available to groups and solitaries alike. Their Code of Ethics includes, but is not limited to:

  • An ye harm none, do as ye will.
  • All persons have the right to charge reasonable fees for the services by which they earn a living, so long as our religion is not thereby exploited.
  • All persons associated with this Covenant shall respect the traditional secrecy of our religion.
  • Members of this Covenant should ever keep in mind the underlying unity of our religion as well as the diversity of its manifestations.

COG is one of the largest multi-traditional groups in modern Wicca, and maintains strict autonomy for member covens. Although they are incorporated as a non-profit religious group in the state of California, the Covenant of the Goddess has chapters all over the world.