Explaining Secrecy in Traditional Witchcraft
One of my more popular series on Instagram was #tradcraftexplained where I attempted (in the limited format that Instagram gives you) to break down the cloud that hangs around traditional witchcraft. I also used the series as a prototype for this blog, putting thoughts out there and testing the waters to see how I felt about blogging in general. Much of what I put out there as #tradcraftexplained has been rewritten in this format to be more in-depth and more engaging. Also, it’s not written on my phone so the quality of the writing is much better.
The birth of the series came from a misunderstanding that is way too common. The idea that traditional witches don't want to help other people travel down traditional witchcraft. Perpetrated by people using similar terms to mean different things, by the use of the word "mystery"” and the occasional gatekeeping attitude of some folks who identify as a traditional witch.
My goal here is to reiterate the original points of the series and make way for more in depth posts in the near future. This is for anyone who is interested in, and potentially flustered by, the streams of traditional witchcraft. Some of this material will be split into another post about The Problem with Words but the main points will get addressed here. Note: I'm going to use the term "seeker" to refer to anyone who is new to traditional witchcraft and attempting to find information. I kind of hate the term but it's what we have to work with right now.
People practicing a stream of traditional witchcraft can sometimes seem closed-off to folks who are newer to the practice. They may seem unwilling to give information or guide new folks on their way. Sometimes it's because of gatekeeping, or keeping people out of traditions to curate who gets to call themselves a traditional witch. While that does happen sometimes, most of the time I don't think that's the case at all.
Witchcraft is personal, it's private, it's sensitive. Traditional witchcraft (both folkloric and classical) is even more-so because it diverges from the norm of what we accept as witchcraft. There are a lot of reasons that a traditional witch will take time to respond to you or may not respond at all. I've included some examples of what I think are good questions to ask, not because I don't think people know how to ask questions but because I think it's like asking questions of a culture you're unfamiliar with. Having someone from the culture outline whats appropriate and what isn't can help cut some of the friction. I also want to be proactive in facilitating this conversation! Not just bog people down on what not to say.
Oath Bound Information
Even though traditional witchcraft is not initiatory there are still oaths in place. Witches make oaths with the spirits of the land or ancestral spirits and may even be initiated into spirit-led traditions that require the witch to maintain secrecy. So occasionally a seeker may ask probing questions that touch on information that is oath bound by the spirits. This is especially true in terms of familiar spirits.
Familiar spirits hold many of our secrets and I often think of the familiar as the seat of a witches power, their gateway to communicating with the spirit world. So there are certain questions that in other streams of witchcraft are harmless that a traditional witch will take as invasive.
Questions to avoid:
"What is your familiar spirit?" -This is invasive
"What was your spirit initiation like?" -Very invasive
"Can you initiate me?" -Inappropriate to ask someone you've just met
Questions to ask:
"How can I develop a relationship with spirits?" -Non-invasive, takes ownership of the work
"I feel drawn to towards Spirit X from Folklore Y, do you have any insights or sources that could help me learn more?" -Provides information, asks for insights, doesn't probe the witch for personal experiences
"Do you have any advice for a seeker looking to obtain a familiar relationship?" -Again this question takes ownership of the work and asks for advice, very pleasant
"What are the dangers of making oaths with spirits?" -THIS IS AN EXCELLENT QUESTION. It is critical, takes into account that spirit work runs risks, and means that the seeker is looking out for themselves.
This is probably the single biggest issue I've come across when folks ask me questions. I am thoroughly rooted in my locality, so if you were to ask me spell advice I am first going to suggest things that grow in MY area. This is problematic because it doesn't allow the seeker to do the legwork and get involved in their bioregion. I've lived all over the place and I'm familiar with more than just my current area, but that doesn't mean I know a seekers backyard the way they do. I can broadly tell someone how to interact with spirits, but I can't tell a seeker how to work with the Spirit of Lake Erie, because I've never been there.
If you do live in the same general bioregion as a trad witch you enjoy talking to, I say ask away. This is the kind of stuff most of us love talking about because it oftentimes allows for some level of confirmation along the way. But for the following examples we are going to assume that the seeker and witch live in different areas because that is a much more likely scenario nowadays.
Questions to avoid:
"What spell ingredients are good for love/money/happiness" -Now this depends on the witch. For me this is so broad that it would be almost meaningless for me to answer unless they live in this area. I am not the type to mix and match multiple plants for the same purpose. If a plant spirit tells me they will do love work, then I work with THAT spirit. So this question is no only something the seeker could easily google and decide for themselves, but way too broad.
Questions to ask:
"How did you start learning about your bioregion?" -The seeker is asking the witch to put themselves back to where they started. This is an easy but effective question.
It's Just Plain Private
Asking a witch what their personal practice is, what their familiars look like, or what their relationship with the devil/gods/spirits is no ones business but the witch's. If a witch doesn't know the seeker they may not feel comfortable sharing personal information in a public manner. With witches who are putting themselves out there, a certain understanding of boundaries needs to be established. Witches in public forums don't owe anyone information. If someone doesn't want to share something personal, or doesn't have the time/resources to answer right away, that's okay.
At the end of the day, experienced witches don't owe a seeker an explanation of how things work. To beat a dead horse, this is personal work. Sometimes people just don't want to share. It may be oaths or regionality, or they might just want to keep to themselves while posting pretty pictures of their space from time to time. No one is obligated to take on an apprentice and just because someone posts pictures of a sigil they're proud doesn't mean they owe anyone an explanation of how it works. That can be frustrating, but it's the truth.
And for every backwoods witch keeping to themselves, you're likely to find witches who are sharing their experiences with others. If someone doesn't answer you, or politely declines to answer you, then take a look at your approach and find someone who will answer. Ultimately it's up to you to do the work involved.
Hopefully this can give some insight as to why traditional witches tend to keep to themselves. To be honest a lot of us love talking about our path and it just becomes a balancing act of maintaining confidentiality with spirits and ourselves. If someone is a kind person and you approach them kindly and with a base understanding of why they are secretive, they will most likely love to share whatever experience they can with you.
Photo taken by Aaron Oberon. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.