British Traditional Witchcraft

Also referred to as 'British Traditional Wicca' or 'BTW', this term applies to the followers of the revivalist witchcraft religion which was started in the 1950's by Gerald Brousseau Gardner and Doreen Valiente. The religion is so named because Gardner allegedly revived the hereditary practices that he found among the witches of the New Forest Coven, located in the south of England. Thus the religion is a 'tradition' of British witches, or British Traditional Witchcraft.

The basic tenets of British Traditional Witchcraft are embodied in both a book of liturgy referred to as the Book of Shadows and in oral lore which is passed from teacher to student. BTW is an initiatory mystery tradition which means that the specifics of the liturgy and religious lore are restricted to initiates only and protected by a series of oaths which are sworn before participation in the mysteries is granted.

British Traditional Witchcraft does not proselytize or seek converts actively, rather allowing those who are called to come to the path. Those who are actively trying to gain initiation or information regarding BTW are termed 'Seekers'. There is an underlying structure to the religion with a system of rank corresponding to the level of training attained and the number of religious mysteries experienced by the Initiate. These levels of training are called 'degrees', similar to Masonry and other Ceremonial Magical orders. In British Traditional Wicca, there are 3 Degrees, ranked from 1st to 3rd, abbreviated with an asterisk representing the word 'degree' (e.g. 1*, 2*, & 3*) with 3* being the highest recognized rank.

Organization

British Traditional Witches congregate in semi-autonomous or autonomous groups called 'covens'. Covens are usually led by a woman of sufficient rank. Because of dogmatic and occult philosophical differences, the body of BTW has splintered into several different sects and offshoots which are referred to as 'Trads' or 'Traditions'. Each Tradition has its own dogma and practices which are codified within the oral and written lore specific to each Trad, as opposed to the 'core' material which is shared across each Tradition. The most common BTW Trads found in America in the millennium are American Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and Central Valley Wiccan. Certain other Trads claim BTW status as well, although opinion and acceptance varies among the other Traditions of BTW.

In most Traditions, a coven is only led by someone of the 3*, although different Trads hold different restrictions concerning this. For example, in the American Gardnerian Tradition of BTW, only a 3* High Priestess (HPS) can lead a full coven, and her male working partner or High Priest (HP) functions in a largely ceremonial fashion. In the American Alexandrian Tradition of BTW a full coven can be led by either a HPS or HP of the 3*. While the HPS is acknowledged as first among equals by Alexandrians in religious rites, the HP has more actual duties and powers in the Alexandrian tradition.

At times however, circumstances may dictate the need to create a coven which is not led by a 3* HP or HPS. Such circumstances can include restrictions of distance, the size of the coven, or general discontent with the leadership of the current coven. In this instancce, a 2* BTW can leave the parent coven in a process called 'hiving off' to found what is called a Maiden Coven. The Maiden Coven operates under the authority of the 3* HP or HPS of the parent coven, until such a time as the 2* person leading the Maiden Coven has earned or can be elevated to 3*.

Once the process of training is complete, a 3* BTW is considered to be autonomous or semi-autonomous, depending on the Tradition of BTW. The HPS and HP who gave the initiate their 3* rite are considered by some traditions to be the Witch Queen and Magus, respectively. Their function and amount of authority vary considerably from line to line and Trad to Trad.

What makes a BTW a BTW?

Opinions vary widely about what qualifies a Tradition as British Traditional Witchcraft. There are differences in opinion depending on who is consulted, and since 3* autonomy is generally recognized in one form or another by all BTW's, the dogma and belief structures are organic, subject to a varying degree of growth and change as circumstances and environments shift. Generally speaking, however, the following are commonalities observed between various Traditions in 2002.

  • Initiatory Practice: BTWs undergo formal Initiation and Elevation ceremonies. Although the concept of Self-Initiation is nice on paper, it is not recognized by BTW's. Initiation is only granted after the teacher is satisfied with the progress or standing of their student.
  • Mystery Tradition: BTW is a Mystery Tradition, which means that the core of the tradition is experiential. The Mysteries must be undergone to provide direct experience to the Initiate. Reading about or talking about the rites is no substitute at all for the actual experience therein.
  • Lineage to Gardner: The concept of lineage is important to BTW. Essentially the same as Catholic Apostolic Succession, a BTW is Initiated and/or Elevated by someone who was Initiated and Elevated, etc., on back in unbroken lines to Gerald Gardner. Certain Gardnerian lines only trace lineage through the Initiating HPS, other trads alternate between HPS and HP. Alexandrian lineage traces only to Alex Sanders, who claimed lineage to Gardner which has been questioned in the past, but is generally acknowledged as valid nowadays.
  • Cross-Gender Initiatory Chain:Strictly enforced in the past, now a subject of often heated debate, the standard model for passing Initiation and Elevation insisted that a man may only be Initiated by a woman, and a woman may only be initiatied by a man. The only exception to this rule was if a father were initiating his son (or grandson), and a mother initiating her daughter (or granddaughter).
  • Passage of Lore: Both the Oral and the Written lore must be passed on to the trainees in the manner in which it was received by the Initiator. This includes many oathbound topics, core lore, and the specific lores which define each Trad and 'family line'.
  • Preservation of Core Practices: Although the definition of 'core practices' constitutes a fairly broad gray area, the general consensus is that certain parts of the core lore and rituals must be actually practiced. Each Tradition and family line within each Tradition interprets this portion differently, but in general it is accepted that the rituals for the Initiations and Elevations for the three degrees must be preserved without subtraction. This allows some to add to the rites, but this is a matter decided by the customs of each Tradition.

Further Information

One of the best places to learn more about British Traditional Witchcraft and the issues pertinent to this revivalist religion is in the Yahoogroup (groups.yahoo.com) 'amberandjet@yahoogroups.com'. This list has become an unofficial meeting place for Craft Elders of various British Traditional Witchcraft Trads, and those who are Seekers.

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