Witchcraft, Initiation, and Sovereignty
One of the often overlooked aspects found in modern witchcraft is the idea of personal sovereignty, being the realization and rite of self-governance. The overlooking of this basic right is actually quite strange because when you think about it, personal sovereignty is a pivotal component in the grand-scheme of any magickal practitioner’s practice and life. After all, magick is about control, governance, helping oneself, opening doors, and bringing opportunity into one’s life right? So, in light of that understanding…
Question: What kind of witch would someone be if they gave up a portion of their sovereignty to a person or group?
Answer: They would be less of a witch.
Huh? Now, believe me when I say that I’m not being mean or condescending, but it’s true. If a witch gave dominion of their person over to someone or something else, they are to some extent bound and limited by that person or group and are therefore less of a witch because of that action. Think about that statement: “less of a witch because of that action.”
Doesn’t that sound bothersome?
Well believe it or not, as alluded to by several of the authors listed below, but without actually coming out and saying so, the relinquishing of one’s personal sovereignty as a witch is a common practice found in many modern witchcraft traditions. This practice is often referred to as taking the measure which is usually done by most covens during a dedicant’s first degree initiation.
What is the measure? The measure basically functions as a talisman that represents the witch and it is created by measuring parts of a witch’s body using a cord. Knots are tied in the cord to mark certain measurements as they are taken and once created, the measure is then often kept by the coven as a symbol of loyalty (Farrar, 55). Magickally speaking, the measure then acts as a direct connection to the witch that could theoretically be used to manipulate or control them if needed or to keep them true or loyal as explained by the Farrars in their book A Witches’ Bible and even referenced by Gardner in regards to an old custom,
…if anyone were guilty of betraying the secrets, their measure was buried at midnight in a boggy place, with curses that “as the measure rots, so they will rot.” (pg. 165)
Now, granted the mutual participation in this act of taking the measure initially demands perfect love and perfect trust as they say, but what this act also clearly implies is that the initiate trusts the coven more than the coven trusts the initiate or else why make something that could be used against the initiate if they leave the coven prematurely? An even odder scenario (one which should probably never occur) is when the initiate has no prior knowledge or understanding of the measure or what it symbolizes and are thus entering into a ‘contractual’ agreement without being made fully aware of the terms and conditions that they are agreeing to. I suppose this particular example is much like the old tale of someone signing a pact with the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for power, money, and success. They know what they want, but do they actually fully realize the cost of their actions? Probably not.
Unfortunately though, the practice of taking a witch’s measure is very common across the scope of modern witchcraft, specifically in British Traditional Wicca (BTW), but I imagine many eclectic and perhaps even some Traditional Witchcraft (TW) groups also practice and apply this technique, but in TW they tend to refer to the measure as the cord instead. However, some groups return the measure to the initiate at some point during their magickal career while some do not.
Ironically though, in BTW one may not be considered a witch unless they’ve been initiated (this is an old argument or perhaps a dead one in today’s world), but if a talisman is made of their person to be held as a means of control then how much of a witch could any initiate truly be if their measure has been taken and kept by a separate party?
I suppose a deeper response to that question would entirely depend on just where one thinks their power lies? Where is one’s ‘witchiness’ rooted? If one views their initiation as the start of their path as a witch, then if their measure was taken the presence of that reality may weigh upon them at times especially if they leave their coven prematurely, but if one feels that their path as a witch was something that they have always harbored then the idea of having their measure taken may not weigh upon them as much and it may instead be viewed as a mild inconvenience, one which can be dealt with if needed.
Dealt with how? Despite being a physical item, the influence or attachment to the measure can be diluted or completely severed. One way is to get help from a friendly neighboring coven as they may be willing to help sever any magickal ties that may still be present. Or if there is no neighboring coven, a cutting ritual can also be performed, a ritual cleansing bath can be utilized, and even the goddess Morrigan can be consulted for help in such matters as personal sovereignty is one of her many specialties. A final way, but one which most would probably choose to avoid (and is not recommended, but which is referenced here for simple acknowledgement), is utilizing the connection to the measure for one’s own needs. Most people do not realize that the connection to the person inherent in the measure is two-way, and serves just as much as a connection to the possessor of the measure as the measure does to the individual witch. In this sense the measure functions as a kind of Horcrux. -Did I just make a Harry Potter reference? Yes. Yes, I did.- Of course, the primary concern is the measure being used against the witch, so I encourage people to play nice in this regards and to treat the measure with a mutual respect for what its creation embodied, that being a pact of trust.
So, how does all this relate to the idea of sovereignty in witchcraft? In regards to many modern forms of witchcraft, besides the creation of the measure, to become initiated does mean the loss of one’s personal sovereignty to some extent. To become a part of a group does mean losing a part of your individuality and even a portion of your freedom as is usually the case when joining a group. The taking of oaths to abide by certain practices and adopt certain policies is a practice rooted in assimilation and is a form of personal binding and restriction, all of which is disabling to a degree. Even an alleged “autonomous” witch -a third degree witch in BTW- is not really granted their full sovereignty because for them to continue to function and be in good standing with the community that they have been initiated into, they still have to abide by certain expectations and rules depending on the situation or they risk expulsion or at the very least being looked down upon. So, just because an initiated witch did their time and became autonomous, does not necessarily mean that they can butter their bread however they please. They will always be under the foot of their initiator and the peer pressure of the tradition based status quo unless they choose to move away from the community.
We are now more than a decade into the 21st century and we are entering a time where the ‘old ways’ of early 20th century witchcraft are no longer reflecting the needs and values of the community and have grown out of fashion, an issue touched upon by Peter Dybing. It’s important for an individual to consider the role of initiation in today’s world. In the ‘beginning’ some 60-70 years ago, initiation was pretty much the only way to learn about witchcraft (with the exception of existing folk practices, customs, or family traditions), now that is no longer the case. What we need are new modes and methods that reflect who we are and where we are in the world. There is enough material in print at this time that a sincere group of people, can create some wonderful and fresh approaches to working witchcraft in a spiritual and religious context that resolve the issues found in many of the current traditions and I encourage those of you who have been initiated into one of these traditions to consider what it is you are preserving and why? And I urge those who have yet to become initiated to do more reading and consider what was discussed in this article before entering into such a situation.
- The Witch Book, by Raymond Buckland
- Wicca, by Vivianne Crowley
- A Witches’ Bible, by Janet and Stewart Farrar
- Witchcraft and the Book of Shadows – Gerald B. Gardner, edited and compiled by A. R. Naylor
- A Grimoire For Modern Cunningfolk, by Peter Paddon