BAM: They ye shall assemble in some secret place
Leland Aradia: Ye shall assemble in some desert place, or in a forest all together join (50-51)
This passage is another example of a new twist being given to the imagery of a passage from Aradia: this is not the great Sabbats of the past which Gardner romantically describes, and which are obviously meant by all the witches joining together in the forest, but a more intimate gathering is implied. The only stipulation is that it is in a secret place.
A further twist is given by the connection which Gardner was very keen to stress between the witch cult and the mystery cults of the ancient world, which he states repeatedly were known by different names, but were all about the same mysteries (Gerald Gardner: The Meaning of Witchcraft. Weiser Books, York Beach, 2004.). Perhaps the best known were the Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries of Greece, Mithraism of Rome (remains of a Mithras temple have been found in London), and the cult of Isis in Egypt. Elements of the mystery cults even found their way into early Christianity, and nowadays, when anyone can walk into a Christian church and stay there until the end of the service, it is hard to realise that in the early days the unbaptised would have been thrown out halfway through.
Burkert lists several characteristics of the mystery cults, which are similar to aspects of Wicca, in addition to the obvious one of secrecy (Walter Burkert: Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (Translated by John Raffan). Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985.). They were initiatory: entry was by secret rites in which a kind of death and rebirth occurred. They were agrarian, for example relating to corn or Demeter (although not all rites of this type were mystery cults), another familiar element of Wicca. There was a sexual aspect to them, including genitalia among their imagery, some ritual exposure, and culminating in the cult orgies, which were orgies in the sense we would nowadays understand the term. Frequently, but not universally, the philosophy of the cults included an idea of a promised future bliss after death. Finally, their myth was characterised by tales of a suffering God. All of these find parallels in the mythology and thealogy of Wicca.
This tradition of secrecy comes down to us today through societies such as Freemasonry, and in the traditional of magical orders such as the Golden Dawn. These societies, of course, are also entered by initiation. Societies such as these could have been the inspiration for the secrecy element of Wicca, but given Gardner’s anxiety to connect witchcraft with ancient mystery cults, I think it more likely that the model of the mystery cult was at some point adopted.
This tradition of mystery, secrecy and initiation refers back once again to Apuleius: in the ‘Charge’ found in the Metamorphoses, it is Isis, whose cult was a mystery cult, who is speaking, and Lucius, the protagonist of the story, is initiated into the cult of Isis at the end of the book. This will seem strange to those who are not accustomed to the ways of mystery religions, but if you ask a Gardnerian Wiccan what happened at their initiation, you will get a similar answer to what he says:
‘Thou wouldst peradventure demand, thou studious reader, what was said and done there: verily I would tell thee if it were lawful for me to tell, thou wouldst know if it were convenient for thee to hear; but both thy ears and my tongue should incur the like pain of rash curiosity. Howbeit I will not long torment thy mind, which peradventure is somewhat religious and given to some devotion; listen therefore, and believe it to be true. Thou shalt understand that I approached near unto hell, even to the gates of Proserpine, and after that I was ravished throughout all the elements, I returned to my proper place: about midnight I saw the sun brightly shine, I saw likewise the gods celestial and the gods infernal, before whom I presented myself and worshipped them. Behold now have I told thee, which although thou hast heard, yet it is necessary that thou conceal it;...’ (Apuleius (translated by W. Adlington): The Golden Ass (The Loeb Classical Library). William Heinemann, London, 1958, book 11, 23, p. 581.)In Witchcraft Today, Gardner quotes at length from a description of the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, including a depiction of an initiation into the mysteries of Dionysos. From the point of view of understanding the Charge of the Goddess, the most relevant part is the depiction of the initiate after his initiation, to which a speech is being read. The Italian author, as quoted by Gardner, calls this speech a ‘charge’, and Gardner afterwards also refers to it as a charge. This was exactly the pre-Valiente use of the Charge in Wicca, and could have been the inspiration for that part of the Wiccan initiation ritual.
A connection between the understanding of the ‘mystery religions’ current in the first half of the twentieth century, and the sources which impacted on early Wiccan thealogy, is made by Price and Kearns (Simon Price and Emily Kearns (editors): The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.), who write that that understanding was of a personal religion, linking the fate of a dying and rising god, with the fate of the believer. Scholars at the time viewed mystery cults such as those of Eleusis as earlier forms of more developed mystery cults coming from the east, and this development culminated in Christianity. This view was eroded from the 1930s onwards, by the discovery that the mystery cults which appeared to come from the East, became mystery cults through contact with the Greeks. Frazer’s archetype of the dying and rising god was undermined from the 1950s, and the aspirations of the member of the cult have been redefined from a future beatitude beyond death, to the whole of the benefits the member received from the cult. This has caused Christianity to be seen as a unique phenomenon, rather than a culmination of centuries of development. It has been shown that the Mysteries were not ‘Mystery Religions,’ but a particularly way of practising the same religion as others. The discovery which most undermines Gardner’s view that all the mysteries were the same, and elements of the understanding of mysteries built into the thealogy of Wicca, is in their complexity. Several different types of mystery have been identified, and not all of them emphasised (or emphasised in equal measure) the characteristics of mysteries identified by Burkert.
It is therefore impossible to make any direct historical connection between Wicca and the ancient mysteries. It is possible to identify aspects commonly found in the mysteries which are also found in Wicca, whose presence may have been inspired by the understandings of the mysteries current at the time. For one of these reasons, secrecy, there may be more immediate reasons for their retention in Wicca.
There are of course several reasons for secrecy, both in the ancient mysteries and in Wicca. The first is that in mysteries, the primary means by which the mysteries are communicated is experience rather than belief, and if you haven’t had the experience you just will not understand it. Perhaps this is how witches know each other (and they do), because of having experiences in common. This creates a situation where these mysteries literally cannot be communicated to those who have not experienced them, without them being ‘initiated’, and so any attempt to do so would actually be futile. ‘I spent last night dancing round naked and leapt over the cauldron’, would not be a statement calculated to create understanding in the office next day. Secrecy from the prying eyes of the uninitiated is clearly what is meant by the text in Aradia.
There is a magical reason for secrecy: the great tradition of not speaking at all about a work in progress until it has come to pass. Some traditions even extend this not thinking about it, the reason for both of these is that magic is done by the formation of an idea in the mind. Often this is phrased in terms of visualising it, but I don’t think that is always necessary; what is necessary is the idea that what you want has already happened. This idea is then powered in some way – in Wicca usually by one of the means of raising energy, comparable to the various ways of reaching what is called ‘gnosis’ in chaos magic – and released from the mind into the universe. And this last bit is the reason for not talking about it. If you talk about a spell, mull it over in your head, worry about whether it will work, you are calling your thought-form back to yourself, and thus ensuring it will not work. Magic works best when you do the necessary and forget about it completely.
A last reason for secrecy in witchcraft and magical traditions is discretion: the plain fact is that people do not understand what we do, and misinterpret it, sometimes through ignorance and sometimes through malice. This silence is actually to preserve the privacy of other members of the cult. Witches with children may have problems if their witch-hood comes to the knowledge of teachers, social workers, etc. Witches with responsible jobs or in public service may be ‘managed through the door’ because people do not want a witch.
Here I have some hard words for my coreligionists: no amount of public relations work will ever achieve the public acceptance of our religion. The name alone is enough to ensure this! At all times and places the word ‘witch’ has had solely negative connotations. It is only since the 1950s that people have called themselves witches, and those people are us, in neo-Pagan Witchcraft.
The irony is that one of the things contributing to the public misconception of our religion is precisely this secrecy which has a role in protecting our co-religionists from persecution. To put it plainly: people always wonder what is being hidden when something is secret. The quotation from Apuleius makes one want to know what happened at his initiation; or to use another example, the endless speculation by anti-Catholic crusaders about what happens in the confessional is fuelled by the fact that it is secret. The example of the confessional also points to the fact that secrecy always looks ‘dodgy’: to the outsider there can be no smoke without fire and those with secrets must have something to hide.
This is a difficult situation for all concerned, and individual witches are the only people who can decide how much to reveal and to whom. To the outsider to witchcraft, who wonders why it is secret and what there is to hide there is an obvious answer (which still won’t satisfy them that we’re not eating babies): covens are often likened to families. There is a difference between what we reveal to outsiders about our family life and what actually happens. Some things in the family are not communicable to outsiders. To reveal some things to outsiders can be seen as a betrayal of the family’s unity and trust. Conversely, it is not breaking trust to reveal abuse or crime within the family to external authorities, since that trust has already been broken by the perpetrators. I feel that this is the best way in which to see secrecy in Wicca.
An additional change in emphasis is made from the Aradia quotation’s placement of the witches’ rituals, in that it specified a desert (deserted?) place, and names a forest, whereas in the Charge this place for the ritual becomes merely ‘some secret place’. In practice in Wicca there are two distinct sorts of place used as liminal places between the worlds: ones which are liminal places in and of themselves, and places which we make to be so.
Both of these kinds of places chosen for ritual are in a great tradition of human yearning towards the numinous. In the case of the first sort of place, the place which is a liminal place in its own right, Mircea Eliade writes:
‘In actual fact, the place is never “chosen” by man; it is merely discovered by him; in other words, the sacred place in some way or other reveals itself to him. The “revelation” is not necessarily effected by means of anything directly hierophantic in nature (this place, this spring, this tree); it is sometimes effected through the medium of a traditional technique originating out of and based upon a system of cosmology. One such process used to “discover” these sites was the orientatio.’ (Wendell Beane and William Doty (editors): Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, Volume 1. Harper Colophon, New York, 1976, p. 155.)While some places are holy, liminal places in and of themselves (and may not by experienced as such by everyone) the other approaching, of setting aside a space as especially holy, is often used for more formal ritual. This demonstrates the change in the place for the witches to meet in the Charge: Aradia specifies a natural place such as a forest, of the first, already existing type. The Charge does not specify that the place has to be discerned a numinous by divination, or make any specification except that it be secret, enabling Wiccan ritual to be carried out pretty well anywhere. The method used in Wicca, the banishings, creating the circle guarded by the four quarters, seems to originate directly from the grimoire tradition, however is still in a great magical tradition, as seen in Varro, writing in the first century BCE about setting aside a place for augury:
‘On earth the word templum is applied to a place delimited by a particular formula for purposes of augury or auspices. The formula is not identical in every instance. On the citadel it runs:
‘”Holy ground and wilderness be mine up to where I have named them religiously.
‘”Of whatever kind that true tree is, which I believe I have stated, let my holy ground and wilderness extend to the left.
‘”Of whatever kind that true tree is, which I believe I have stated, let my holy ground and wilderness extend to the right.
‘”Between these points let there be holy ground for direction, for observance, for interpretation, as I believe I have religiously stated.”’ ( Varro: De Lingua Latina, 7,8. In John Ferguson: Greek and Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. Noyes Press, Park Ridge, New Jersey, 1980, pp. 50-51.)