When I go out surfing on the Web, bouncing around the various bulletin boards, message boards, and the odd (some very odd, BTW, <g>) pagan Web site, I keep running into a usage that sets my teeth on edge. Typically, it goes something like this:
I’ve got news for you, kids. While you may very well be creating a personal form of spiritual or religious practice that is unique and distinctly your own, it ain’t in any way, shape, or form a tradition. At least, not yet, it isn't...
So, you ask, if there are all these other “Traditions” running around, like the Gardnerian Tradition, and the Alexandrian Tradition, and all those other groups with fancy names, why do I say that you cannot call what you are doing a Tradition?
It's very simple: being able to call what you do a Tradition is more than just a fancy way of saying “We do things a bit differently in these parts, pardner.”
Historically, within the Craft community the term “Tradition” has been used to refer to a group of people who all follow the same distinct form of practice; who have collectively established some effective method of continuing or perpetuating that unique form of practice; and who can all trace a lineage through their teachers or initiators back to a common original source or sources for that unique practice.
As an example, let's look at the Gardnerian Tradition, the oldest Tradition in the modern Craft movement. All Gardnerian practice centers around the rituals and rules of conduct outlined in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, written by Gerald Gardner, the Founder of the Tradition, with a great deal of help from Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner’s High Priestesses in his original coven in England. While there are minor variations from one Gardnerian coven to another, a properly-vouched-for Gardnerian initiate could stand in Circle with a Gardnerian group halfway around the world from the coven in which she was initiated, and still find the ritual work familiar. The Gardnerian Tradition does a perfectly fine job of perpetuating itself, too. Most Gardnerian covens accept students for initiation from time to time, teaching them the unique ways that the Gardnerian Tradition practices the Craft, and then, when they are judged to be ready, initiating them into the Tradition. And every Gardnerian initiate, male or female, can trace a lineage though his or her initiator, the initiator’s initiator, and so on, right back to one of the three women who at various times served as High Priestess in Gerald Gardner’s original coven, and through them, to Old Gerald, himself.
So, you ask, where do all of these other Traditions come from? They had to start somewhere, after all...
Of course they did. In general, what happens is that one individual (or more rarely, a group of individuals,) trained in one Tradition, decides that their group is going do things in a different manner from the way that he or she was taught that a group is supposed to work. So they start trying different things, and some of them work, and some don’t, and the things that work get incorporated into the group’s regular practice, and before you know it, that group’s practice is distinctly different from that of the group with which the leader trained. Then, presuming that the group survives (and many newly-formed groups do not, more’s the pity,) and begins to take students, the students are taught to practice the way their group does it, and not the way the group’s leader was originally taught. It is through precisely this sort of mechanism that newly-formed groups within the Craft community begin to perpetuate themselves and their forms of practice.
So, you ask, how long does all of this take before one can start talking about having a “Tradition?”
Like a good many important issues in the Craft movement, there is no clear-cut, hard-and-fast answer to that question. (Would that there were such an answer, as we’d have had a fair number fewer witch wars in past years if there were.) The rule of thumb that I prefer to use is the third-generation rule: when the students initiated by the original leader or founder of the group are themselves teaching students and initiating them, and everyone involved is following the same forms of practice, then you may start talking about having a Tradition.
But in the real world, things aren’t always that easy or simple. Consider the case of Proteus Coven and the Protean Tradition. Proteus Coven was founded by Judy Harrow, who had been trained in a classical Gardnerian coven, and who left that coven to found Proteus as a new Gardnerian group, strictly in accord with normal Gardnerian usages. After she had been leading Proteus for some time as High Priestess, Judy and her coveners decided that they wanted to alter the way their coven performed some ritual activities. Following Gardnerian custom, Judy discussed these changes with her teachers and received their approval of her plans for Proteus before any of these changes were implemented. The result was that Proteus Coven was now practicing the Craft in a manner that differed in some significant respects from most other Gardnerian groups. While Judy and her teachers were of the opinion that these differences were not significant enough to divorce Proteus from the Gardnerian mainstream, and despite the fact that Judy and her teachers had followed Gardnerian custom when she checked back with her teachers before making the changes to Proteus’ practices, other, more conservative Gardnerian leaders felt differently, and said so, in some cases going so far as to make ugly statements containing words like “heresy.”
In the meantime, Proteus went blithely along its own way, figuring out which of its new ideas worked, and which did not, and taking in students, who were taught the ways things were done in Proteus, and not by the strictly traditional Gardnerian curriculum by which Proteus’ High Priestess had been trained. And after a while, when people noticed that there were a fair number of Wiccans around whose sole source of training had been in Proteus Coven, who were forming their own covens, and teaching their own students, using the material that they had been taught in Proteus, some people began talking about a Protean Tradition, separate and distinct from Gardnerian Wicca. These days, it is largely accepted that Proteus Coven, (which is still extant, in case you were wondering,) and the covens and initiates who derive from Proteus comprise a new Tradition. But you will still find a number of people who say that the differences between Proteus and the Gardnerian mainstream were not all that great, and that Proteus and its daughter covens really could, and should, still be considered to be a part of the larger Gardnerian movement.
So, you ask, where does all this leave you?
Well, first, if you are a solitary practitioner, self-taught and self-dedicated, and you work alone, I think it’s a bit silly to try to talk about having your own Tradition. Your lineage begins and ends with you. Get yourself some students, and teach them to practice in the same way you do, and then when they start teaching their students the same forms of practice as you taught them, you may have something. But by then you’ll not really be a solitary, will you? On the other hand, I can see some sense in thinking of the vast mass of solitary practitioners out there as comprising something similar to a tradition when they are taken as a whole. Perhaps we might term it a meta-tradition, or something...
To those of you who are working in groups or are thinking of forming a group, the best advice that I can give is to concentrate on finding out what works for your group, and on finding that shared sense of commitment to something greater than any of the individual members which keeps groups together over the long term. If you find these things, and if you can make them a part of you strongly enough that you can pass what you have learned on to others, eventually, what you have created will become a Tradition.
In the service of the Goddess, I remain,
six days past Yule, 1998 C.E.
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This page last updated 24 January, 1999 C.E.