People (with the occasional hermit as an exception) are group-oriented. We seek out connection and conversation with others, especially with others that we can really relate to. Yes, everyone has always heard the old adage “opposites attract” and while it’s important that you and those you associate with aren’t complete carbon-copies of one another, it is important that we have someone, or a few someones at least, with which to share personal things that we hold in high regard and that we value a great deal.
People who come into Wicca or Witchcraft or Paganism are often those who might seem like outsiders to the mainstream already. We tend to have one or more beliefs or behaviors that are quirky or odd when compared with the bulk of society. So, when seeking out something as internally focused and intensely personal as a religious, spiritual, or philosophical system, we often hunger for another person who shares similar views to engage with. This is why the first question that a new seeker asks is: where do I start? And the second one is: where do I find others/a teacher?
I started reading about Wicca/Witchcraft when I was in high school. At least, that’s how old I was when I first came across the idea as something that is practiced as a religious belief and not merely seeing the word ‘witch’ only apply to either fantasy characters or people burned at the stake hundreds of years ago. I chose to follow the path for myself when I was a senior in high school, with about three years or so of study under my hat. I have always been a very studious person at heart, so when I say I studied, I mean I studied… like someone who was preparing for some sort of college exam. I took extensive notes, and had filled up both bookshelves and notebooks with stacks of information I had gathered that related to my new practices and religion. I did this for about two-and-a-half years before I ever met anyone who was a teacher. I believe it was because of this time of only self- study that I had such a strong understanding of what I was looking for when I was blessed with meeting others. I think that it was also because of this that I was asked by the lady I looked upon as one of my first teachers and guides to host a workshop about how to be a solitary Witch.
So, yeah, this was my first foray into the realm of teaching a class that had to do with Witchcraft. I embraced the opportunity, and panicked that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I first presented the class at the store where I had met her. Then later I was asked to repeat the class as a workshop at one of the women’s retreats I had begun attending with her and some other active ladies in the local Pagan community.
Here is the basic framework I started with, and what I generally give out as advice when instructing people how to try and get the most out of solitary practice:
Being a solitary Witch carries its own difficulties. In a group setting, you have teachers or other Witches that can coach or mentor you, answering questions you might have, and showing you how to put things into action that you’ve only seen demonstrated in books. (Note, this was before the internet blew up the way it has been. I didn’t have the benefit of youtube videos to show how to cast a circle like the seekers today get.) When you don’t have anything like that, you are responsible for gauging your own progress or establishing your own study curriculum.
- The first thing you should do is get a journal. I suggest a simple one with about 50-60 pages. In this journal, begin writing down what your own beliefs are and don’t be afraid to dig deep. What do you believe about God? Life? Death? The afterlife? Magic? Witchcraft? Ethics and Morals? Issues that affect your life? Write about your thoughts and beliefs on family, history, traditions, practices, religion, science, nature, philosophy… anything you can think of that starts with, “What do I believe about ____?” and go from there. What do you think defines success? What defines failure? How do you handle either? Keep going… Witchcraft is a practice of self-empowerment. If you want to empower yourself, you have to know yourself. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Know what your talents and abilities are as well as your shortcomings and faults. Then, after you have filled up the journal, read through it. Now you will have an idea of where to begin your studies.
- Next get some books. There are all sorts of books out there, and they range in terms of quality from “I am so sorry that trees had to die for this.” to “This opened my eyes so much! I have so much to think about now!” The trouble is that as a new seeker, it can be hard to tell the ends of the spectrum apart. Which is why you have to develop Critical Thinking Skills while you work through this step. I also have an extensive list of book recommendations in the “Recommended Reading List” tab at the top of this blog. (Which I will have to update soon now that I’m thinking about it again. Drat my Gemini mind for coming up with something else to do while I’m still working on one thing….)
- Establish some sort of guideline or curriculum of study and practice for yourself. This can be as simple as devoting every two weeks to reading about the history of Witchcraft, or maybe looking for information on herbal medicines, or studying ancient mythology. Or maybe you want to try and jump right into some basic candle magic. The topic doesn’t matter much. What you’re looking to do at this step is figure out some sort of way to keep track of your progress. At this step in the game, it’s really easy to get side-tracked and if you stay side-tracked too long, it can start to feel like you aren’t doing anything productive or aren’t getting anywhere. If you know this is something that can happen to you (maybe because your first journal entries helped you to reveal that about yourself…) then you can try to work around that and not let it beat you. When you are a solitary, you set your own timeline for things. It is very freeing and very daunting. Don’t be daunted and overwhelmed. Plan ahead and try to stick to it.
- Set your own mile-markers based on what you have been able to gather from books or the internet. There are things that one should expect even the basic beginner Witch to have experience and knowledge of. Adding onto this, what is an acceptable level of knowledge and practical experience for someone of intermediate study? What about someone who is advanced? Proficient? Expert? Master? Your understanding of what is included or expected at each of these levels is yours and might not match up exactly with what a second-degree member of a long-standing tradition or even a third-degree member of an eclectic coven would know or do, but unless or until you join something like this, who cares? You are doing this for yourself. And, if you can put this sort of requirement on yourself, if you do end up joining a group later on, you will have some sort of measurement to judge them by. If you know more as an ‘intermediate solitary’ than someone claiming to be an expert, you can better determine if this person would be able to instruct you effectively or if you would end up sitting in classes listening to things you already know be repeated and rehashed.
- Be honest with yourself. Just as the first step in this was beginning a journal that you could use to examine yourself, you must always seek to keep your ego in check. There must be a balance so that you can grow in confidence, but not in conceit. This is something that you will have to pay attention to, whether you are a solitary practitioner or a member of a group. It’s often more difficult on a solo path though, because you don’t have a teacher/mentor or another person to hold up that mirror for you when you start to sway too far into hubris. Always look fairly at yourself and try your best not to fall into conceit or false delusions of power or grandeur.
Groups often have a degree system or something to that effect that helps members keep track of their progress. Solitaires do not, and while you can’t be a second-degree solitary Witch, you can determine what you want to learn and how much you want to learn about it.
If you feel called towards clergy service, I strongly recommend that you seek training from reputable teachers or priests/priestesses of the Craft. Working for yourself as an independent practitioner doesn’t necessarily require training. Working for others as clergy does, because you are taking responsibility for guiding and serving others. You owe it to them to be qualified for this commitment.
As a final note, remember that being a solitary Witch who has had to make his or her own way through studying books and trial-and-error experiences is a worthwhile and valid path of the Craft. As I’ve tried to show in the above examples, in several ways, it can even be the more difficult route. If you are solitary, or have not studied with a teacher or group, there is no shame in that. Own your self-sufficiency and resourcefulness for what it is! Do not falsely claim to have studied or earned titles or degrees that you didn’t. There is nothing weaker or wrong about being self-taught if you commit to doing it well and as thoroughly as you possibly can. There IS something wrong with lying about your background or experience.
I will be posting the second part of this, focusing on Coven/Group work in the very near future.