I’ve recently had several conversations about the pros and cons of being a member of a working coven, versus being a solitary witch. I’ve had both experiences. Both are absolutely valid avenues of practice for a witch. I am very grateful for the challenges and education I received as a founding member of a coven. In my years as a solitary prior to my coven years, I never pushed myself as hard to gain knowledge, to double check my facts and to practice regularly, as much as when I was a coven-mate. The accountability and the task of teaching others held me to a standard that acted as a forge for my own learning and magickal power. I was an elder in a strong and growing coven, with a large public congregation for years. I was privy to the hierarchical structure, the ins and outs and ups and downs of planning and organizing ritual, both public and private and, of course, the unavoidable personal drama of the members. It takes a tremendously strong individual to lead a coven successfully. Politics and personal conflict necessarily enter into the equation.
So, nowadays, I am a solitary, and happy at it. My practice was forever strengthened by my membership in that coven. I wrote the following peace at the end of my membership. My frustration with the system is apparent. I’ve written this forward from a greater emotional distance than I had at that time. But the message, regardless of my anger and frustration in the moment, still rings true, so I thought I’d share.
Wicca’s Prime Directive
Most people who are familiar with the phrase, “Prime Directive” think “Star Trek.” The Federation’s Prime Directive was to avoid interference with the civilizations they encountered. A prime directive is simply a principle upon which rules are based, a principle to which one would defer if the rules or laws appeared to be in conflict with it.
One of the reasons I found the practices of Wicca to be inviting was the lack of a lot of “Rules”. There was simply one Prime Directive; Harm None, Do what ye will. This appealed to me greatly since it has been my experience that there is no rule or law that can be applied across the board in every situation.
Even in considering the Ten Commandments we can find that there would be ethical and reasonable exceptions. Honor thy mother and thy father? What if they are physically abusive? Thou shall not steal? What if one is starving or one’s children are starving? Thou shall not kill? How about self defense?
The appealing thing to me about the prime directive of Harm None is that it requires a person to THINK through all of their decisions. Some have attempted to paraphrase this principle with “As long as I’m not hurting anyone, what does it matter?” But it’s not quite that simplistic. Harm can be defined very broadly. It applies to one’s self as well as others. It can apply to the planet since that affects all of us. One is required by this to consider the consequences, to consider the specific circumstances, and above all to consider the individuals who may be affected. I really like the fact that we are expected to use our brains. There’s no checklist we can scan to let us know that we haven’t “sinned,” so to speak.
I remember hearing the phrase “Rules are for fools” in the past. I dismissed it, at first, as a flippant, but catchy, disregard for authority. But upon closer inspection, it really makes sense to me. There is no specific rule or law that has ever been put down on paper BEFORE someone committed the transgression. If everyone was able to conduct themselves in a manner which was in keeping with common sense and the principles of “Harm None” or “Do unto others as you’d have done to you”, then rules wouldn’t be necessary at all. But that, of course, is not the case. Rules are necessary… unfortunately, because there ARE … well… Fools who are not able to simply act by the nature of the prime directives (conscience). The fact is that when one encounters a principle of behavior such as “harm none” or “treat others as you’d like to be treated” one cannot deny their validity. These principles stand on their own merit and the recognition of their ultimate Truth comes, not from the mind but from the gut.
Now… I do understand that “Harm None” is actually an unattainable ideal. There are times, of course when we have to choose the least harm in any given situation. But the prime directive encourages us to do our best.
So what’s the relationship between the Prime Directive and the written rules?
Lets consider the idea of affirmative defense in legal matters. Generally speaking the laws of society try to follow the general principles of ethics. But there are times when acting ethically and obeying the law are two separate things. If someone is screaming for help from inside a locked, private home, breaking and entering suddenly becomes ethical, if not strictly legal. If a loved one is seriously injured, we may justifiably break traffic laws in an effort to get them to the emergency room. All of the laws of a society should be subject to Ethics. Any law that cannot be excepted under special circumstances is doomed, eventually, to do more harm than good.
So too, Covens and Traditions of witchcraft have their rules.
Some rules apply to ritual practices, i.e.; casting circle, calling quarters, invoking deity, etc. These rules would derive from the written and oral traditions of the particular branch of witchcraft to which the group adheres. Sometimes they are the preference of the High Priestess or Priest in the case of more progressive groups. But they are generally seen to be valuable, important and worthy of following due to some experience which has proven them to be effective or enlightening in some way. Blind-folding and binding initiates is not an uncommon practice. And it does serve its purpose. It’s a transformative death and rebirth process. A shroud and some form of submission can be very useful in creating the psychic energy required. But what of an initiate who, through past traumatic experience, has a sensitivity or phobia in these areas? It is the responsibility of the High Priestess to be aware of these issues and to determine whether the ritual practice would do harm to the individual.
Some rules apply to the structure and hierarchy of the Coven, i.e.; High Priestess/Priest; Council or Elders, Initiates, Novices. These rules would determine what roles are to be taken by the members in their respective positions. And just as in the hierarchy of any society, these delineations are necessary to keep order, especially in larger groups. However, it must always be remembered that Witchcraft is a spiritual practice. Recognition of fellow souls as equals is part of that. And this particular area of coven life is highly prone to causing hurt feelings in cases where certain workings and/or meetings are exclusive to certain groups of members. Communication is key here in ensuring that everyone understands their roles and what is required of them. However, in the case of the occasional and unavoidable break-down in communication, when a person innocently appears to attend a group meeting or working that is not intended for their own group… how much harm can there be in allowing that attendance? Considering the mind-set of the individual is important here as well. Some members may easily accept that they came to the “wrong meeting”. Others might be deeply hurt at the exclusion. In the face of turning someone away with an attitude of “You’re not one of us”, the inclusion of a novice in the workings of an elder group doesn’t seem very damaging, does it? Which scenario would cause the least harm? It is imperative that these considerations be taken into account.
The fact is that even though there are rules in place and those rules have validity and value, the prime directive of Harm None TRUMPS THEM ALL. On this subject I stand firmly with Henry David Thoreau; “If the law requires that you be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” The practitioner must still consider, in EVERY situation, what action would cause the least harm. To do less would be to demean the title of Witch.
Next up…. a discussion of the meaning of Will…