It was a long drive up through the dark trees of Elevdon Forest from Bury St. Edmunds to Brandon in the North of Suffolk. None of us in the car knew what to expect from our first session of Wicca training, after all we were going to see the Witches. We knew that the training would be one evening a week, three weeks out of four for two years with a break between Halloween and Candlemas.
We also knew that it was free of charge (though we were asked to bring biscuits) and that apparently, all genuine Craft training was given for free. We had been told that it would be very hard work, and they were certainly not kidding, though we did not really know it then. But as we drove through the forest in spring, through the dark of the early evening the leaves just starting to bud, we were not expecting the right rollicking we would get for being late. A valuable first lesson – you don’t mess with the Craft; you treat it with respect.
It was the start of a great adventure, an adventure that has continued over many years till today and looks set to continue for the rest of my life. It is an adventure that has taken me to places that I never imagined I would go, both within this world and within myself, and led to experiences that back then I could not have even conceived in my wildest dreams. It has been an adventure that has brought me into contact with the most exceptional people and with complete nutters. As with any path in the Occult it is a road that has to be trodden by me alone – no one else can walk it for me.
There is an old saying in the Craft, ‘that a Witch is not usually financially wealthy but he or she will always feel rich, rich in experience, rich in knowledge and rich in the friends that they make along the path’. For me it was the exceptional training that I received that opened up so many doors.
I had found out about the training through a contact organisation called The Green Circle. The Green Circle was a group founded by Marian Green and was an organisation that amongst other things helped practitioners of the Western Mystery Tradition network and make contact with each other. I had been trying to practise with a small group of friends for a couple of years and we were not really getting anywhere, several of them had lost interest, and so I had joined the organisation in the hope of meeting real Witches.
I suppose my interest in spirituality had recently been rekindled when I had read a book on Wicca. Even as a teenager I was always a keen reader. I had grown up in the countryside, as my father lectured at an agricultural college near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. My two younger brothers and I had the run of the college estate that included woodlands, ponds, rivers and fields. Perhaps it was this almost idyllic childhood, entrenched in the beautiful Suffolk countryside, that had led to my abiding love of nature and ultimately to taking up a spiritual tradition that uses nature and the tides and season as a metaphor for its mysteries.
The training group was run by a couple of Witches called Tricia and Dave. At that time they were the High Priestess and High Priest of a long established country coven in the rural north of Suffolk. They felt that a long period of training outside the coven was necessary because it gave the coven a good long while to get to know potential members before they joined. It tested the commitment of the potential initiate. Dave and Tricia said that a coven is only as strong as it weakest link and that long training gives the potential initiate the tools to practise personal development towards self-actualisation, leading to personal transformation making it possible to experience the mysteries. “It is training for a mystical experience”, Dave said. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about.
During the first session we discovered ourselves sitting in a comfortable living room in a pleasant medium sized bungalow in a small rural town in the middle of the forest. We were sat on leather chairs with Dave and Tricia, who I guess at that time were in their mid fifties, facing towards us, with their Siamese cat Joss curled up asleep on one of the arms of the armchairs. Dave has a voice like Christopher Lee while Tricia sat quiet sizing us up; when she spoke everyone listened. There were pictures of birds on the wall, and a carving of the Goddess Freya hanging up between them. There was also an old fashioned besom standing up against the wall – the sort you would expect Witches to have, and a funny looking forked stick leaning up in a corner.
They explained to us that attending the training would not be a guarantee of being initiated into the Coven and that we were expected to put the training into practise. “You will change,” we were warned, “if you don’t change then the Craft is not working. Do you want to change? What about loved ones, will they want you to change, have you the right to inflict that change upon then?” Blimey they were right. “You will become an activist”, Dave said, “not the kind of activist who demonstrates outside of Greenham Common, but an activist within your own life.” He also warned us very gravely that we would only get out what we had put in.
Dave told us he would play devil’s advocate to see if we were really thinking for ourselves. We were expected to give our own ideas and opinions, we were not being told what to believe, we were not there to parrot back what Dave and Tricia were saying but to say what we really thought, what we really felt. They were not at all interested in what we thought they wanted to hear or what was written in books. Dave challenged everything we said, if something doesn’t stand up to challenge then it is not worth keeping. It was certainly tough, but then anything worthwhile is earned and is not easy, you value it more. But it was also really good fun and rewarding.
There was a huge amount to get through in two years. It wasn’t about how to cast a circle, nor doing rituals and casting spells. These are the kind of thing that may be taught after initiation in coven. Nor was it things like tables of correspondences, what tool is used for what, what colour candle to burn or how to make a magic wand. Nor were we being told about the Wheel of the Year, or myths about the Gods – we could find out all that from the many books on Wicca. Rather it was learning and practising the skills required for magic – meditation, visualisation and concentration.
We looked into Altered States of Consciousness and how to achieve them. We looked at the functions of myth and ritual, not just in the Craft but in religions and spirituality in general. We were asked to write our own personal myth to help us find patterns within our own lives, and thus change it if we wished.
Much of the training was about our self-actualisation and personal development. We looked at Maslow’s model of self-actualisation and how that leads to peak experiences. Dave and Tricia suggested that Witches were self-actualizers or at least working towards it. We spent a lot of time examining Carl Jung’s Depth Psychology. We looked at his model of the psyche, at owning our shadow, coming to terms and accepting and integrating those parts of ourselves that we dislike and often project onto others. We looked at our contra-sexual side, that part of our psyche that is feminine if we are male and masculine if we are female. It is the path to individuation to identifying more fully with the whole of our psyche rather than with the ego, giving us a more balanced personality and thus picture of the world. In that way we can deal with it more wisely and act with self-determination.
It wasn’t enough just to talk or to learn about it; rather we had to put it into practise. This meant we had to be very honest with ourselves; a process that continues throughout our lives. Dave and Tricia said that it was a lifelong process of personal transformation, and self-knowledge, the start of which is initiation leading to individuation, and the identifying of self with the whole – the start of mysticism. This was part of a mystery tradition; after all it was written above the temple of the mysteries, ‘Know thy self’. According to Dave, what isn’t so well known is what is written on the inside and is only seen by initiates, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch!!!!’
All this was tied to the myth of the wheel of the year. During training we discovered that the Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year had little to do with Celtic festivals. Rather the Wheel of the Year was like a big onion, multi layered. On the one hand it referred to the tides and season of the year, on another they referred to the mysteries of birth, sex, life, sacrifice (i.e. being a parent), and death. We were encouraged to apply it to our own lives on the inner and outer levels.
We didn’t shy away from some topics that are often seen as taboo. We learned about sacred sexuality; a quality very hard to define in words. We discussed the Lady and the Dark Horned Lord, within and without as metaphors of life, fertility, death and change. We looked at the reasons for working skyclad, that is ritually naked. If we cannot truly love ourselves how can we truly love others? Craft is about self-empowerment, and sexuality is the fuel of the Craft.
Another potentially upsetting subject was the subject of death. We were encouraged to learn about the nature of grief and how to help others and ourselves through it. We were also asked to write our own funerals. There were some really good reasons for this. It made us confront our own inevitable mortality in a healthy way
By planning your own funeral and letting loved ones know your plans means that they can just carry them out with little stress placed on deciding on what you would have wanted. However we had to bear in mind that funerals are not for the person that has died but for the people left behind.
Sadly this was put into practise in the training group after mine. A trainee tragically died. Since he had planned his own funeral and discussed it with his wife, a lot of the stress of preparation was taken from her. He had done a good job of planning it and had put a lot of ‘fun’ back into ‘funeral’. There were a lot of tears of sadness and laughter that day.
It was all pretty practical stuff that we were being trained in, stuff that needed to be applied to our own lives. We looked at plant identification and their uses for herbal medicine, magic, wine making and dowsing.
As Craft is a practical spirituality that deals in real life rather than fantasy, we also had ‘Tricia’s Topics’ every week. In this part of the evening we would discuss a current event, a life problem, a coven problem etc. The idea being that Craft needs to be grounded in the everyday world of real life – ‘Feet firmly on the ground and head among the stars’.
Now I have come full circle, I have now been training potential new Witches for nineteen years, some of which have joined our coven. I learn so much from the trainees myself and it really helps to keep my skills and ideas fresh. One of the greatest things about it is there is nothing more rewarding or satisfying than to see people work with the Craft, to see them use it to transform their lives nor the better. It is a privilege to be part of starting new trainees on their own great adventure.
By Rhys Chisnall – revised 2019
Bio: Rhys, along with his wife Martika, is a member of a rural Gardnerian coven in the middle of Suffolk. He has a Masters degree in philosophy and works as a history and humanities teacher. He is interested in wildlife, travel, wine making (with mixed results – just ask the coven), philosophy, field archery and reading.
Photos: Elveden Forest: https://www.centerparcs.co.uk/village-news/elveden-news.html
Altered states of consciousness: https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/sleep-drugs-and-mental-health-how-altered-states-of-consciousness-could-keep-us-happy/