Thursday, December 22, 2011

Witch Councils, and America

I have remained largely mute about the recent attempts to re-start the “American Council of Witches,” which appears to have ended in failure. This is not especially surprising, given the history – as I understand it – of the original 1973-4 “American Council of Witches.”

It is still a subject I should like to see others shed more light on, as it seems to be fundamental to the present state of Wicca in America. Amongst the members was Jessie Wicker Bell, who in 1971 had first published (via Llewellyn) Lady Sheba's Book of Shadows. She claimed it was her family's hereditary Grimoire, and that she had been commanded by the Goddess to publish it.

In fact, it was a somewhat altered version of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. According to Michael Howard's Modern Wicca (p. 221-222), Bell was sent her BoS by his coven and she was initiated after a year and a day by proxy. He writes: 

“Reluctantly, I was persuaded by my own Gardnerian initiator Rosina Bishop to pass on a copy of the version of The Book of Shadows we were using so Bell could be initiated into Wicca by proxy. This is also done in traditional pre-Gardnerian witchcraft where “the power” can be passed through a written text or magical object. However, as was the trend among other Gardnerians, we had made some important changes to the BoS. This including amending the Craft Laws and also adding a poem written by Doreen Valiente originally published in the WRA newsletter Pentagram...”

Of course, I very much doubt that the “Traditional Witch Square Dances” found in Lady Sheba's BoS originated from Howard, and so it's clear that she added her own material as well. That said, in 1974 she integrated herself (along with a few other Llewellyn authors) into the Council of Witches. This might not have been a huge problem, except that Bell seems to have decided to use a tactic that often backfires terribly: 
“This group put forward thirteen principles that all Wiccans could adhere to, and that were later incorporated into the US Army's handbook for its chaplains.* Unfortunately, not all American witches wanted to sign on to these principles and became suspicious of Lady Sheba when she started reffering to herself as America's Witch Queen.” (Italix mine.) According to an internet article on “Wicca Fundamentalism” by Ben Gruagach (dated August 11, 2007), Jessie Bell declared she was the leader of all American witches (italix mine) at a WitchMeet in 1974.”
From those I have been able to discuss on the subject, this was – or has at least been presented to me as – the catalyst for what may have been America's first Wiccan Witch War (yee-haw!). I could probably take this discussion into the realm of near-conspiracy theories, but I will resist.

The original 1974 Council of Witches, suffice it to say, was a fiasco and has resulted in a noticeably negative impact on the subject of Wicca ever since. I honestly have no idea why anyone in their right mind would have ever wanted to try and repeat it, or even pay homage to the event.

*This claim has, I believe, been criticized as a-historical and mythical.
Edit: Or not. Wild Hunt indicates that the addition was made to the Chaplain's handbook.

13 comments:

Brother Christopher said...

although, if you have read Lady Sheba's BoS, some of the added material is right out of conjure/hoodoo. john the conqueror oil isn't exactly british.

Jack Faust said...

There are some obvious American strains of Magick and thought in there. I haven't read the whole thing, only chunks. But I do recognise that, which is not the source of my criticism in the least. /Grammar correction.

Jack Faust said...

Since I'm not being very clear about the meaning and context of my comments in the entry above, I want to try and amend that issue here.

I feel like a whole swath of critiques could be written from a post-Marxist, Post-Anarchist, Post-whatever angle discussing the commercialization factors and their impact upon new, previously misunderstood or not well known, and other religious movements. When you have an idea catch fire and this idea (in terms of religious ideas) becomes a commercial commodity, a number of a factors become grossly apparent, along with a number of byproducts.

Wicca is actually an excellent place to wage those critiques from, because the current debates and arguments about "who is or is not Wiccan," "what is or is not Wiccan" and so forth are predicated on how far it's traveled as a marketplace idea. Many of this issues and arguments have their roots in the early years and spread of Wicca through the U.S., including but not limited to the 1974 Council of Witches.

On the one hand you have a newly spreading religious movement with many, many people interested in it and not enough covens to fulfill that demand. And on the other, you have newly arriving individuals with their own ideas and their own motives (some of which may involve profit), who want to correct this imbalance. And between those groups there begins the cascade of events and publications, renunciations, etc.

At the very beginning, Llewellyn had a hand in trying to shape ideas of what Wicca was, and what it should be. To this end (between 1980 and the early 2000s, especially) they have gone to great lengths to retitle volumes simply on Witchcraft as "Wicca," and to try and make it sound as if Wicca and Witchcraft are in fact synonymous. Whether or not this is true, is not what I wish to debate. The question is one both of intellectual honesty, and of open discussion on the repercussions of such acts.

I feel the 1974 Council of Witches is especially revealing on this matter, due to the fact that it sought to codify a code ("The Principles of Wiccan Belief") which spoke for an entire religious movement, but only involved the thoughts of what seems to be on the other hand a minority. Included in this group are Jessie Bell, Carl Weschke, and Silver Ravenwolf.

When I say this, I am not criticizing Eclectic Wicca. To a large degree, I feel it fills the void felt in the 1960s and 1970s and provides an outlet for those who wish to engage in the general ideas that Wicca brought to America, while also having the ability to choose whether or not to engage in "British Traditional Wicca".

However, along with this was published a very vocal minority whose views have since allowed to become mainstream, and who often attempt to define a religious movement in terms applicable only to them, or to generalize the subject so much as to make it effectively worthless. I am very critical of this minority, and of their treatment by the majority of Wiccans out there. ... Well, most people seem to dislike Silver Ravenwolf. But that's besides the point...

Jack Faust said...

In many contexts, certain individuals have been characterized or lionized as benevolent, but when you go over the course of the events and try to sort out the question of "why is this subject so filled with anger and betrayal," there is a tendency to discover things like Bell's claims to be Witch Queen of America, and the pressure that was attempted to be placed on the newly arriving BTW lines to adopt policies that were in some cases antithetical to their practices (anti-hierarchal statements, for example).

For this reason, I really think we need to go back over the general history of Wicca and Witchcraft in the U.S. and start asking whether or not certain responses to conditions were ethical, or if they were driven by profit margins, etc.

And until we are honest and open about these things, all we can really see is one group directing hostility toward the other, but without ever realizing where the sources of their arguments even stemmed from.

I'm all for Scott Cunningham, and I recognize that Lady Sheba's BoS is an important landmark in craft history. But these things are not all important landmarks because they were always beneficial to the community. In some cases, they were. But I really do think that in other cases, certain events simply established a precedent for bad behavior.

Okay. I'm going to stop writing about this now. LOL.

Scylla said...

I agree that the entire U.S. Craft scene needs to dig into that old business, turn it over, and see the soil they grew in for what it is.

Some say "Sheba" attempted to imbue her own works with The Power to bring anyone who read it under her line - viewed through that particular fug, yes...she'd be their Queen.

But that's a really, really, shitty trick to pull, too.

Hart said...

You had me at "asking whether or not certain responses to conditions were ethical, or if they were driven by profit margins". Thank you.

Gordon said...

I never got what all the rush was about.

Religions take centuries to codify... and then they break into sectarian pieces.

"Official" groups form and dissolve along the way. IMHO it's potentially more expedient to view these things from a social dynamics perspective rather than anything inherent within the content itself.

Actually, we're talking about Wicca so I'm sure there is some kind of "bushfires as natural process of destruction and renewal" metaphor in there somewhere. :)

Jack Faust said...

I don't understand the rush, either, Gordon. Heh.

petoskystone said...

This 'witch council' hoopla carried with it the smoke of unspoken motivations, no matter how sweetly the words spoken. Then again, I don't play well with most groups..

Jack Faust said...

Hart: My pleasure. Although, I'm still working out why I feel different about some subjects than others in this matter.

Cool blog, by the way! I hope you keep updating it. And, Happy Holidays.

Petoskystone: Haha. No joke. I'm more of a joiner, I suppose, but I seem to have high standards....

Jack Faust said...

Scylla: Heh. Chumbley reportedly used copies of the Azoetia with indwelling daimons for the same effect. But, he seems to have consciously chosen such tomes for the task and specific spirits for specific individuals.

I am not convinced Bell had the talent for such widespread dispersion, nor that you can maintain "a book of Magick" as a vehicle for proxy initiations if it's mass published. Maybe if you put all the copies in a Goetic triangle and then invited the spirits to live in them following evocation... But... That requires a fair bit of talent. Hm. I ought to ask around and see if anyone does it. I was told rumors of charged copies of the Goetia years ago, but not of successful talismanic "Liber Spiritus" usage.

Jack Faust said...

I just. I mean. Wow.

And earlier I asked why anyone would want to recreate the Council? The answer to that is apparently Silver Ravenwolf's "To Ride a Silver Broomstick," beginning on page 5. The face I am making is one of complete shock, I assure you.

Harold Roth said...

Didn't any of the folks supposedly involved at the beginning of this COW thing go and look at Kaye Berry's business website? Anyone who looked at that site would know immediately that she is incapable of leading any sort of national organization.