Seeking a Craft Teacher

I recently came across a blog in which an Elder was ranting about current students. The jist of her rant seemed to be “In the Good Old Days, I walked barefoot up a snowy mountain both ways for the beatings that I was grateful to receive”. This blog upset me for several reasons. Anyone seeking traditional teaching is in for a whole lot of hard work, transformation, grief and yes, even possibly pain. It is definitely not a path for just anyone, and a lot of people who seek it will drop out when the going gets tough. It is not easy, it is not without tears; essentially, expect to work your ass off. Traditional Craft training will eat up a good portion of your life and you should expect to agree to do what your teacher asks of you.

But…there seems to be some confusion out there about what is acceptable behavior from a traditional Craft teacher and what is not.

So, what should you look for when seeking a “traditional” Craft teacher? Once you’ve found someone you think you want to work with, what are the things you should think about and consider?

Doreen Valiente

Doreen Valiente

Things to do:

Verify that this person is who they say they are! Do I mean ask for their driver’s license and birth certificate? No. Ask, what is this person’s lineage or the training that certifies them as a teacher of the Craft? If you’ve approached someone claiming to be from a tradition, such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian, they should be able to tell you their lineage and how to contact the person who initiated them for verification. If this person has not been initiated into a particular tradition, they should be able to tell you where they got their training. Always be wary of a teacher who won’t give you their background. Why is this even important? Because for one thing, if the person is lying about the tradition they teach and practice, they’re bound to lie about other things too; for another, if you get an initiation, you will be part of that tradition, and you should know what the tradition is and how it is regarded by the Craft community. You should only ask this if you’re in a serious discussion with the person about being trained. It is considered extremely rude to ask someone for their lineage otherwise. Lineage is an extremely personal thing in most traditions. Most people don’t announce their lineages in public, but they will happily tell you what tradition they are initiated in. Watch out for someone who won’t tell you what tradition they are a teacher of. If you wander up to a Craft teacher and randomly demand their lineage, they’re probably going to tell you where to stick it.

If someone tells you that they learned things from reading a book, this is not someone who has earned the title of Craft teacher. If that’s all you want, go read the books for yourself. You can find them all on Amazon, in a Barnes and Noble, or in a local occult shop. (Support your local shops if you can people!)

Talk to this person’s other students, if they have any. What do they say about this teacher? Most groups will invite you to meet up with them if you are interested in joining. If you’re approaching a traditional group, the teacher will probably have someone from their lower degrees or outer court answer basic questions for you. This is to help that student learn how to talk to other people about the Craft and it’s also to help you get a better perspective on the teacher and the group that you are asking to join. Covens, traditional and non-traditional, become family. They won’t accept just anyone and neither should you. If you meet up with a group and you’re not clicking with it, this is probably not the teacher you should go with.

Talk to students who have either hived from the original group or who have left the group. Are there hard feelings? Did the person leave because it was time for them to start their own group or was there a reason that they couldn’t work with the old group anymore? Just because a student leaves for personal reasons doesn’t mean that they are bad reasons. Many students do not make it to initiation, that doesn’t mean there has to be hard feelings left over. People will report their experiences, good and bad.

What does the rest of the Craft community in the area say about this teacher? Teachers usually gain reputations in the community they work in and it can tell you a lot about the person as well. Stop in your local occult shops and ask around. People are usually willing to let you know about any personal prejudices they have before expounding on their opinion on the person. Having access to the internet is also useful these days. Usually teachers are involved in a lot of others things and you can find their personal blogs, pages, ect., online. Check those out and see if this person is talking about things that you can agree with or sound reasonable.

What does the rest of the teacher’s life look like? Are they productive? Are they doing things that you would support? Or, are they doing things that you wouldn’t support, such as sitting on the couch and watching TV all day? A respectable Craft teacher is not only going to be fully involved in the Craft, they will also have a healthy, balanced life away from the Craft.

Ask what the teacher’s expectations for their students are. Most groups will have a course of study mapped out and will readily explain what is expected of you. They may not give you details until after you’re dedicated to their group, but they should clearly tell you what they expect from you as a student.

In my tradition, students aren’t just expected to do the work towards initiation or elevation. They are expected to help out with anything Craft related. You might be asked to assist in keeping the temple room clean or in bringing food for a feast and then helping in cleaning up afterwards. You are expected to show up to classes and rituals and other outings as discussed. You will be expected to read a lot and do other homework assignments. And this is just some of the mundane work involved!

They should also tell you upfront if there are any costs associated with studying under them. Different traditions approach this differently. In traditional Wicca, a teacher should not ask you to pay them for teaching the Craft. They might, however, ask you to donate money towards supplies or a space if they don’t have one to teach from. Some covens have a schedule of dues to provide for supplies like candles and incense. This is also something that you need to take into consideration. Is money something that you are willing to give and if so, how much? Do the costs sound reasonable? Do some basic research on that specific path and see if asking for money is accepted by the larger tradition.

Janet and Stewart Farrar

Janet and Stewart Farrar

Things to avoid:

If a teacher can’t answer “Why” questions. If you ask a question and the teacher tells you “because that’s how it’s always been done”, this is probably not a great teacher. A teacher should always be able to give you the background on something. They might tell you that you can’t learn the answer behind something until after initiation, or that it is an oathbound answer, but even with an answer like that, there is probably some background info that they can give you. They should also be able to give you the answer as to why this isn’t something that won’t be taught until later. In Blue Star we say “if a student can phrase the question they deserve an answer.” This is good Craft policy: “Because I say so” is not!

Manipulation or coercion in any form is never acceptable.

Asking you, the student, to buy them things like nice dinners out, or giving them money for their living costs. I know of several “teachers” who have their students pay into their rent and utilities. This goes with the question of what is this teacher doing with their life. Since most teachers don’t accept money for teaching the Craft, they need to be able to support themselves in other ways. Expecting your students to do this for you is a big no-no in the community. I heard of one teacher who made their students take them to McDonalds for dinner for ritual. Does this seem like a normal thing to you?

Expecting you to come and mow their lawn or clean their house. They should be able to scrub their own toilets. It’s one thing to ask students to assist in keeping sacred spaces clean, this is probably a part of your training; it’s entirely different if they expect you to come and take care of their daily life for them.

If a teacher expects you to have sex with them, they should be avoided at all costs. Sex can be a completely sacred act, but it should never be used to reach a new elevation or to get recognition in the group. Most groups I know won’t even practice Skyclad in the Outer Court. While you can have completely healthy sexual relationships within your coven or with your teacher, any teacher that asks you to keep quiet about a sexual relationship or expects it in return for teaching is crossing a huge line of ethics. Most teachers will not sleep with a student without a prior relationship already established. Most teachers will also not sleep with a student who is not an initiate: this is so that no doubt can fall on the reason for the student’s initiation.

Being punished in a physical or humiliating way is not OK. The scourge sits on the altar for a reason and many traditions use it…but never to punish someone for giving the wrong answer. The scourge has many different uses, most of which you won’t learn until you are initiated, but it is not a tool that is used lightly or for punishment in the outer court. If a teacher mocks you or humiliates you for not knowing something, you should also look elsewhere. It’s one thing to have a light chuckle over an answer, it’s quite another to call someone stupid over and over. (I’ve heard some horror stories…)

More Janet and Stewart

More Janet and Stewart

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of any teacher of the Craft is respect. Do you respect this teacher and do they in return respect you and your needs? The Craft is a hard enough path for those of us that seek it that we shouldn’t be worried about how our teachers are treating us while we are working our way through it. Respect has to be earned by anyone, and teachers of the Craft are no exception. If someone gives you the heebie jeebies, if you curl your lip at their personal habits, if the things they do to you in Circle make you wonder if their behavior is acceptable…it probably isn’t. Don’t let someone treat you badly in the name of teaching you the Craft. It’s one thing to expect hard work and dedication; it’s quite another to make light of what you’re going through as you do it.

If you want to read the original Elder Rant, go here.

Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince

Don’t Smudge Me!

Thursday night of Sirius Rising, I was watching the opening of the show that Artists Dream was presenting. I had participated in my first sweat lodge earlier in the afternoon and I was completely wrung out. The sweat lodge had been an intensely emotional and physical experience and I was basking in the afterglow of having let go of some intense feelings and issues.

Artists Dream

Artists Dream

The whole week had been about a lot of intense ritual. I assisted in the elevations of two of the members of our coven and participated in Jason Mankey’s Morrison ritual (more about that later!). And all of that was after driving nearly twenty hours to get to New York where the festival is held and helping my partner get his band up to Brushwood along with us. There had been a lot of planning, work and details to see to up until that point and it was finally all done with except for the long drive home.

At that point I was pretty exhausted, but over all, I was feeling really good. The sweat lodge, while an intense experience, was a good one. My coven sisters survived their elevation, my partner’s band mates had all arrived and were sounding good together as they prepared for their Saturday night concert and I was successfully initiated into the Morrison clan. There was still a whole lot of festival to go, but I felt like I had done the things that I needed to do and could relax for the last few days. I was carrying a pretty positive buzz around with me.

And then…I started smelling sage.

I had been smudged earlier in the day. Before walking onto the island where the sweat lodge was held, I was smudged. Before participating I had to go to an instruction class about what to expect, what to do, when to show up, ect. ect. Sweat lodges can be dangerous if you aren’t correctly prepared for them. You are in intense heat for at least an hour, if not longer and wearing jewelry can produce severe burns. People have died in sweat lodges not done correctly. If handled properly, the sweat lodge is a safe experience, but it is definitely something you need to be prepared to do, especially if you’ve never been in one before. It is not a ritual to walk into without any preparation or forethought.

Frame of a traditional Lakota Sweat Lodge with the red ribbons...

Frame of a traditional Lakota Sweat Lodge with the red ribbons…from Inside the Lakota Sweat Lodge

In the instruction class, one of the things we were told is that before coming onto the island with the lodge, we would be smudged, and if we left the island at any point and had to come back, we needed to repeat the process. The woman who poured our sweat discussed that she tried to keep things as traditional as possible (her lodge was based on the Lakota sweat lodge) and talked a little bit about what a traditional Lakota sweat lodge was like in comparison to a lodge poured elsewhere. While sweat lodges can be found throughout many cultures of the world, each kind has different traditions and rituals. In the Lakota sweat lodge, modesty and purity are important qualities. You are there to work with Spirit, not worry about the physical world. We were asked not to drink alcohol or take any drugs for the rest of the week before the sweat. We were asked to wear clothing that covered our bodies. The women were asked not to participate if they were menstruating. Respect was a key component of our conversation. The smudging was a part of the process that I was gladly willing to do.

Smudging, for anyone not familiar, is when sage or sweatgrass (sometimes mixed with ceder, lavender and other herbs) is used to purify or bless a person, item or place. North American smudging has been traditionally practiced by the native peoples and has been heavily appropriated by NeoPagans and other new age-y sorts everywhere. My partner and I have many discussions over smudging and cultural appropriation. My partner also argues that smudging is not a part of our traditions (we practice mostly Welsh and Celtic). He sees it as being somewhat disrespectful to our gods and traditions as well. (The discussion on cultural appropriation is often discussed in the Pagan community and if you want to read more eloquent discussions on the subject, see the end of this blog).

Smudge "stick"

Smudge “stick”

I like smudging because it works. You don’t have to do an intense ritual, you simply burn your sage and it’s going to clear out excess energy hanging around. When I smudge, I know that it has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing and I don’t try to pretend like it is. I have no tribal affiliations and no traditional training. I am a Wiccan priestess that takes advantage of an herb that is readily available to me in my community. For me, burning sage works for my purposes. I like to do it when I’m cleaning my house and getting ready for something new or preparing for a ritual later on. It creates a neutral atmosphere and lets me set things up for whatever I am doing next. It’s sort of an easy reset button. Ever been home alone at night and suddenly realized things just feel off? Smudging will take care of it! Ever had an argument and can’t get away from that energy hours later? Again, smudging will do the trick!

But that’s just it, people often ignore the fact that it doesn’t just carry away negative energy. It’s a neutralizer. It cleans everything out.

That happy buzz that I had been carrying around with me? Gone. I felt violated. I had not gone to the concert to be smudged. No one had asked me if I had wanted to be smudged, someone just deciding that it would carry away the “negative vibes” and walked through the whole audience. There wasn’t a general announcement and they obviously didn’t think through all the possible consequences of their actions. We were not in a ritual setting, we were not in someone’s occult shop (in many occult shops, smudging happens regularly), I was not in someone else’s personal house or space…I was at an outdoor concert at a festival.

While the long lasting effects of the rituals I had participated in were certainly not gone, the happy energy that I was still carrying with me that night was. I had worked hard for that energy and I couldn’t easily get it back. I was immediately exhausted.

And maybe this is a part of the cultural appropriation discussion. We do magic and magic can blow up in your face when not done properly. We work with deity and one deity may not want to have anything to do with another deity. You also have to be very aware of what you are doing to those around you. Being a responsible practitioner, no matter what tradition or traditions you’re working with is hard work. It takes research and attention to detail. It also takes a level of awareness that most people just don’t have. This person obviously had no idea that their good intentions were going to have a negative side effect.

This person was working with energy and did not bother to ask people’s permission first.

Consent, as with everything else in life, is vital.

Festival can be a hard experience to deal with. There are tons of people around you doing all kinds of crazy things with music, dance, art, ritual and magic. You are out of your comfort zone and the societal rules that most of us live with disappear. There are different traditions and practices going on all around you. It is easy to be overwhelmed. That does not give you the excuse to be irresponsible with magic and energy in a crowd of strangers. In fact, I would say that it increases your responsibility in how you handle your magic and your energy.

No, smudging isn’t “casting a spell”, but it is an action with magical and energetic intent. Whenever you do something with magical and energetic intent, you need to stop and contemplate it’s effect on other people. You should never mess with someone else’s energy without their consent.

So think before you do something “simple”, even if you think you’re only getting rid of the negative. You might just be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Further reading:

Cultural Borrowing/Cultural Appropriation: A Relationship Model For Respectful Borrowing by Christine Hoff Kraemer

Pagans and Cultural Appropriation by Lupa

How to follow the eclectic path, minus the cultural appropriation – In the Garden of Proserpine