Get any group of middle-aged witches, ritual magicians or druids together, and they will lament the decline of committed working groups. Membership is falling across the spread of hundred-year-old magical orders, and even open Pagan groups and Druid groves have an increasingly elderly and shrinking population of committed members who do all the organisational work. I know priests and priestesses with a lifetime of service who are quitting in despair.
“But,” I hear you say, “Paganism is a growing movement; there is more interest in magic, witchcraft and Druidry that ever before!” True, but most of those interested people work individually for the most part, do things with a few friends occasionally, or just go to moots, conferences and camps when they want to celebrate with others on an ad hoc basis, if what is on offer looks interesting or fun.
Part of the problem is undoubtedly a numbers game. I live in a village, and there used to be one shoe shop, and it did very good business. Then for some strange reason, suddenly there were six shoe shops, and not enough custom to go round – they all went out of business. There are so many covens, groups, moots, camps and conferences now, that the actual audience is spread increasingly thin between them.
And then there is the C word – commitment. Hardly anyone wants to make the commitment to a group; they want to dip in and out of all the myriad goodies on offer. Meanwhile, those of us who try to provide moots, camps or groves are under pressure, because we often have to do it without much help and keep them going with falling numbers. A friend who runs a well-known grove complains there are two people who do everything, and despite having a large list of people who count themselves members, few attend regularly, most only dropping in for rituals once a year. I recently closed down the Outer Circle I ran for 40 years, partly because despite having 120 nominal members, we often didn’t get the 25 needed to pay for the room, but mostly because the people attending didn’t actually want an Outer Circle (a committed teaching group which is a prelude to joining a coven) but simply a social moot which they could drop into occasionally, and I am way past doing that. The only groups that are growing are the ones that don’t ask for much in the way of commitment or work.
Does any of this even matter? After all, there are thousands of books available, and you can find any information you want online – there are no secrets. Is this not just the democratisation of information? I’m reminded of the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, when asked “what is the meaning of the Universe?” answered “42”. Information can only take you so far. Knowledge and wisdom live on separate shores, and that’s where a teacher who has already walked the path comes in. But no, we live in an age of anti-intellectualism, when experts who have studied a subject for thirty or forty years are discounted because all opinions are equally valid, even if they are only based on a few Facebook memes. It is a peculiarly modern Western view of spirituality, that it can be scavenged without much work or study, or that someone else should provide it without any conditions, or that it is there to support the desires of the ego, and even that it can be bought. We live in a society that expects instant gratification, big rewards for little effort, and most resist the idea that self-discipline, hard work, commitment, and giving service in return is necessary.
I sometimes wonder whether we have made it all too easy, whether trying to publicly provide service and teaching has backfired. In the old days, it was hard to find a coven, never mind join one. You had to decode messages on bookshop notice boards or attend vaguely spiritual groups that shielded coven members who might approach you if you looked likely. If you applied to join a coven, your first letters would not be answered, or you might be sent away for a year. These were tests of commitment and intent. And maybe secret knowledge is always more attractive…
Meanwhile what happens when the largely older group of people who currently run the moots, camps and groups die out? No doubt something will still run, but I have lost track of the number of people I have seen who have read a single book or been in their friend’s self-taught coven for a year and set themselves up as high priestesses, and pass on their garbled ‘knowledge’ to those who know no better; I could name a few fairly prominent ones right now. They may be all we are left with. The coven I have run for forty years is still going, but we are all over fifty now. I worry that unless the true teachings are passed on, which can only be done through experience and by experience, it will die out, and we will be left with something superficial, the palest glimpse of what was.
The work of a committed magic group is vitally important, sparks of illumination in a sea of ignorance. Public rituals always fail to reach the levels of achievement of those of a working group for obvious reasons; they merely touch the mental plane of ceremony. In contrast, a close-knit working group has trained together, knows and trusts each other on a profound level, shares a tradition, uses common symbols, mythology and ritual formats and over time, forges its connections with the Gods. It can draw on the knowledge and experience of each person, and can balance the energy of each person within the ritual, subsumed into the group-mind. The power that six or twelve people wielded this way creates something far greater than the sum of its parts. With public rituals, little or none of this is true. People who have only ever been to public rituals have no idea of what a ritual can be.
Those who give of themselves receive blessings in return, experiences beyond any that can be achieved alone, forging a powerful path, together to understanding, and bringing that back into the world. If ever we needed that, we need it now.
© Anna Franklin, July 2021