The tree of tradition

Jun 1st, 2018 | By | Category: Articles

Gustav Klimt, ‘Tree of Life’, 1909

The core of my own training in the magical arts has been, in the main, through a specific and quite localised branch of Traditional Witchcraft. It seems to be that particular word, “traditional”, which brings about the most intense questioning whenever I’m trying to explain this. Does it mean that I’m part of some genealogy of witches that stretches way back into the distant past? Does it mean that I work magic in exactly the same way as countless previous generations of witches?

I think “tradition” is one of those words that conjure up a range of ambivalent meanings. It suggests validity inherited from the past, but also a kind of fossilisation. Maybe it’s a peculiarly English perception, given the way that traditions are so often invoked in this country, that something can be inherently justified by its own tradition, as if having roots in the past is, in itself, a reason for continuing to exist. And just as so many of those supposedly ancient English “traditions” are actually quite recent inventions, it’s way past time that Pagans owned up more easily to the fact that there  are few, if any, completely unbroken Pagan traditions, in the formal sense at any rate, in our community.

That’s probably as true of my own tradition as it is of anybody else’s. My teacher had inherited documents from her teacher that purported to show a history stretching back a long way. Those papers are not in my possession, but even when I had access to them, I had no way of either proving or disproving their actual age or the claims that they made. I can only trace the tradition back, with absolute certainty, for three generations of teachers before myself.

I can remember one of my Japanese sensei telling me, some years ago, that the old Japanese martial schools, the ryu, would only consider themselves entitled to the term “tradition” once they had passed through three unbroken generations. This isn’t an arbitrarily chosen time span. It takes that many generations for a “group consciousness” to develop strongly enough that it takes on a collective life of its own and overshadows the individuals who are drawn into its embrace; and for the older generation to accumulate enough knowledge and wisdom to pass on to the younger. Teaching passes not so much from mother to daughter as from grandmother to granddaughter.

So even if those documents held by my teacher are disbelieved, our Path, now into at least its fourth generation, is as qualified as any, and perhaps more qualified than some, to describe itself as a Tradition. However, those forms of Wicca (and other Paganisms) that emerged in the 50’s and 60’s, from the activities of Gardner, Sanders, Cochrane, and their contemporaries have also been maintaining a continuing line of teachers and students down to this day. Most of the people initiated by those modern Pagan pioneers have children, even grandchildren. They are surely entitled, these days, to regard themselves as being just as “traditional” as those of us who belong to alternate and possibly older streams of Paganism and magic.

“Everything She touches, changes”, goes a well-known Pagan chant. It holds as true of “tradition” as it does of anything and everything else. New traditions emerge and grow, and some may die out as others pass through changes. It’s important not to think of any tradition as static – because that way lies only the road to stagnation. Traditions – real, living, traditions – are shifting, changing, constantly. A genuine tradition is one that roots itself and its adherents in the past while still being able to bend in the winds of the present.

Any living tradition must evolve. In the case of my own tradition, we have learned (and continue learning) much not only from other Pagan paths and teachers but from the fields of permaculture and Deep Ecology; from contemporary pioneers in connecting art, body and environment such as (for example) Andrea Olsen and Joan Jonas; and from rediscovering woodcraft skills that have otherwise faded with urbanisation. Among many other sources. And for the modern witch, being internet-literate is arguably almost as important as being able to cast a Circle or weave a spell.

Which, appropriately, brings me full circle. Being part of a Pagan tradition is not about being so focused on the past that we become fettered by it. It’s about having strong roots that enable growth into the future. Any Pagan tradition, at its best, is both matrix and praxis, and is as much a living enspirited entity as a tree.

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