Oral Tradition And The Written Word in Wiccan Religion

Do all these books on witchcraft (and related subjects) make the traditional way of learning Wicca—through studying with a coven or a Craft elder—no longer necessary?

Balancing Book Learning with Mystical Experiences in Wicca

If you want to follow the old ways, an essential part of your spiritual path will consist of reading up on the Craft and related subjects. But it takes more than reading books to become a Witch. In the words of Lady Galadriel, a Wiccan elder of the Unicorn Tradition and editor of The New Wiccan Book of the Law, “Books may reveal the secrets of witchcraft. But they cannot ever reveal the mysteries. A mystery can only be experienced.” Becoming a Witch requires knowledge of Wiccan secrets and the direct experience of Wiccan mysteries.

Look at it this way: If a person read “The Joy of Sex” and any number of other books on sexuality but had never felt the pounding of two hearts while kissing and embracing a loved one, could that person indeed be called an accomplished lover?

Of course not. The books may provide all sorts of erotic knowledge, but without the experience of actually making love, a person remains a virgin. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a virgin. But until someone experiences the beauty of love, reading all the sex books in the world is nothing more than an exercise of the mind.

Gaining Wiccan Wisdom Beyond Books through Ritual and Experience

The same principle applies to Goddess spirituality. There are two ways to gain knowledge of the old ways: through the written word and one or more teachers of the Craft. Anyone interested in Wicca will enjoy reading all they can and likely enjoy classes, primarily if taught by a knowledgeable and responsible teacher. But amassing knowledge is only half of the process of embracing the Goddess. The other half comes from experience. This includes experience with ritual, meditation, vision quest, initiation, and psychic development. Of course, every person’s path is unique, and what I require to mature in my spiritual path may not be the same as what you need. Nevertheless, it takes more than just reading a book to master the Craft of the Wise.

Balancing Knowledge and Practice in Spiritual Growth

Some people more naturally pursue the experiential side of spirituality, enjoying spellwork, trancework, and other hands-on activities. Others prefer to immerse themselves more naturally into the esoteric knowledge that can only be gained through study, whether reading books, working with a teacher, or both. Sometimes, it’s easy to focus on just one of these paths, the experiential or the intellectual, and often, a seeker will choose one and ignore the other. So, some people read tons of books but never seek out the direct experience of Pagan spirituality. Others immerse themselves in the experience but avoid the work of book learning.

I want to encourage you to seek balance here. Read all you can. But know when to put the books down and experience the wisdom of the Craft. Balance intellectual knowledge with heartfelt experience.

The Value of Personal Guidance in Wiccan Learning

Traditionally, Wiccan ways were passed down orally from mother to daughter, teacher to student, and master to apprentice. Studying under a good teacher’s guidance remains the best way to learn witchcraft. Many Craft elders not only possess vast knowledge but also understand how to use and apply that knowledge in the service of the Goddess and the God. The best teachers know how to perform rituals that inspire, spells that work, and magick that truly transforms. In studying with such a teacher, you will learn and experience things that no book could teach you.

But not everyone has access to a good teacher. Wicca is growing so fast that more students are eager to learn than qualified teachers to train them. If you are in a position where you don’t have access to a teacher, do not despair. 

Francesca De Grandis, a Wiccan elder of the Third Road Tradition and the author of Be a Goddess!, says, “A good teacher and an ardently seeking student cannot be replaced by a good book and an ardently seeking student. But good teachers are not always available, and I will suggest a good book before a bad teacher.” 

Self-Guided Study and the Autonomous Wiccan Path

Even without a qualified elder to teach you, you can still take responsibility for your Wiccan education by reading and doing experiential work such as meditation and ritual. Indeed, that’s why elders like De Grandis have written books; they recognize there are more willing students than they could ever reach. Remember: Without a teacher, you must be your master. The learning process still requires reading the book, taking notes, doing the exercises (many Wiccan books have numerous practical exercises to do), and doing research to answer any questions that may arise. All this while keeping knowledge in perspective with experience as you progress along your spiritual path.

The Delicate Balance: Tradition vs. Modern Literature in Wicca

It’s easy to see why so many Wiccan elders advocate learning the Craft from a teacher rather than just through books. “Oral tradition is based in direct individualized feedback from elders,” notes Francesca De Grandis. Lady Galadriel concurs. “Until they invent the book that can talk back and answer your questions, a teacher is irreplaceable.”

I know of Wiccan elders who dislike recommending books to their students. They think reading books can distract students from the more important quest for spiritual experience.

On the other hand, some Wiccan books encourage the reader to perform self-initiation rituals and value their intuition above tradition when walking the Wiccan path.

Therein lies a controversy. What is the proper role of the written word in a tradition that, historically, has been passed down orally? With so many books getting published on Wicca and Magick and so many newcomers to Pagan spirituality relying on books to educate themselves, with or without a mentor, perhaps books are doing more harm than good. If new Pagans are not bothering to learn tradition but are simply reading a book or two and deciding that’s all it takes to be a Witch, perhaps all these books are undermining the very religion they supposedly are promoting.

On the other hand, perhaps the explosion of books is neither good nor bad; it is simply a new and different way of transmitting secrets.

Tradition and Modern Literature in Wicca

My purpose in pointing out this controversy is not to take sides (although I take a moderate position, which I will explain below). However, writing about Wiccan books, I needed to acknowledge this issue. It represents growing pains in the Craft community. As I said above, there are more eager students than qualified teachers. Because of all the Wiccan books that have come out in the last 20 or so years, there are so many students.

The books get people interested in the old ways, but it takes more than reading a book to become a Witch—and yet, for many people, reading a book is the only education they’ll get.

If some books imply that teachers aren’t necessary, and some teachers suggest that books aren’t needed, where is the best path to maturity in the Craft? Through experience. 

Balancing Study and Practice in Wiccan Spirituality

Ultimately, your experience is a personal matter between you and the Goddess and the God. Reading a book does not necessarily translate into a spiritual experience, and studying with a teacher does not necessarily translate into a spiritual experience, either (although a teacher has the advantage of providing personalized feedback).

I cannot resolve this little book’s tension between oral tradition and written words. However, the best position involves honoring both books and teachers for what they do best. Books transmit knowledge efficiently and enjoyably. They’re easier on the eyes than a computer screen and work equally well whether you’re in bed, on the sofa, or in an airplane.

Meanwhile, working with a qualified teacher is the best strategy for mastering the experiential side of Wicca. If you don’t have access to a good teacher, you can still pursue the experiential, but it takes just as much self-discipline and dedicated effort as required when working with a teacher. Maybe even more.

So, I recommend the best way to practice Wiccan spirituality is to enjoy the many books on witchcraft and related subjects and work with a qualified teacher. If you don’t currently have access to a good teacher, perhaps that opportunity will arise in the future. Meanwhile, keep reading and doing experiential work, like meditation and ritual. Seek knowledge of the secrets and experience of the mysteries. That is the path to becoming a Witch.

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High Druidess Alisson

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