Wiccan Ceremony As Moral and Cosmological Truth

Johnathan White

“...rites are not originally ‘allegorical’; they
  do not merely copy or represent but are
  absolutely real; they are so woven into the
  reality of action as to form an
  indispensable part of it.”
– Ernst Cassirer

Sometimes it is the most unusual or distinct attributes of Wicca that escape the notice of its adherents. I had been using the term for many years before I realized how remarkable it is that we casually refer to our rites as “rituals” or “ceremonies.” When I was a Protestant I know I never heard anyone say, “That was a really moving ritual,” upon leaving church. Without ever commenting on doing so, Wiccans routinely use terms from the detached, anthropological perspective on religion when describing “insider” religious experiences. This practice underscores the Wiccan perspective that ritual as such has inherent value, beyond the event the ceremony celebrates. For ceremony, not mythology, is the central body of Wiccan cosmological teachings, and ceremony, not the Rede, is the central text of Wiccan ethical teachings.

One thing about Wicca that most folks in the Earth Religious community know, but that ain’t so, is that the Wiccan Rede, “An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt,” or grammatical variations thereon, is the primary moral rule in Wicca. In fact, the “Wiccan Rede” is not the central statement of Wiccan religious ethics. The Rede is another articulation of the core values of humanistic thought and action. These humanistic values of freedom, nonviolence, and mutual respect are essential; they should govern secular society and have always been the foundation of law and custom in healthy civilizations. But there is nothing distinctly Wiccan about the Rede. Not many Wiccans experience the Rede or its utterance as a genuinely inspiring, transformative moral insight, one they approach with a dazzled sense of wonder at the sacred. Many Wiccans probably cling to the Rede out of a more or less unconscious desire to have some kind of statement of religious morals, living as they do in a Protestant-dominated culture in which a definitive document of moral teachings seems an indispensable element of a religion. As a moral compass, the Rede is useless to Wiccan seekers after righteousness. With its exclusive emphasis on autonomy and omission of communality, the Rede leads us to a desolate ethical landscape, each soul isolated in its own freedom from others’ interference.

But there is a body of Wiccan moral teachings, and we are encountering it as a source of inspiration and awe. It is ritual liturgy, and not the Rede, that is the real primary text constituting and teaching Wiccan ethics. It is in the elements of ceremony—solitary, intimate, or public—that we encounter the religious and social morals of the faith, and are confronted with the sometimes difficult and sometimes joyous lessons about living in the world in a Wiccan way.

Etymologically, “religion” is re-ligion, re-ligation, “to tie back together.” In this sense Wicca is a very religious religion, for connectedness is simultaneously one of Wicca’s most important moral concepts and one of its most significant cosmological precepts. In our Path, everything is always already tied inextricably to everything else. But in the contemporary world, this empirical fact is the subject of what can only be described as hysterical blindness. There is a willful refusal to accept that if we over-fish the oceans, we are not feeding ourselves but creating famine around the corner; if we pour sewage and chemical runoff in our rivers and lakes, we poison ourselves; if we bury radioactive waste deep in the Earth, we are bequeathing a cruel inheritance to folks ten thousand generations down the line. We have lost our place in the great Wheel of Life, in the web spun on the loom of our Mother—but our place has not lost us, and the ethical demand made on us by the cosmological truth of connectedness is our rediscovery of our connectedness to the Universe. There is much, much more to this than just some environmentalist politics and philosophy. The Wiccan ethic is not a set of instructions about do’s and don’ts for our own and the Earth’s ecological health; instead it is a framework for re-ligation with the Universe. This is not something we obtain and move on, but something with which we struggle permanently, and towards which we strive in our ceremony and our lived experience. Cosmological connectedness is a passive condition, the background of Being; ethical connectedness is a constantly renewed intention around which our lives crystallize.

Just as liturgy is the central statement of Wiccan ethics, it is also the primary source of Wiccan cosmology. Wiccan cosmology has generally been accessed through an archive of mythological thought, but this is essentially a dead-end, and it is necessary to go further into Wiccan ritual praxis to reach the deep levels of our Path’s cosmological truth.

Myth is concatenated metaphorical truth, metaphorical truth animated by a sense of time. Mythology is ossified myth, mythic truth reified into a closed narrative, rather than the fluid play characteristic of mythic truth. Mythological time is myth time without cyclicality. In Wicca, ours is a mythic worldview, but should not be a mythological one. We must be vigilant against the tendency to use our faith to retreat from the world, when in fact our Path is predicated on moving out to renew our organic linkage to the world. In other words, ours is not a religion of fantasy, but a religion that discloses a hidden but very present reality. Wiccan cosmological knowledge is a metaphorical exposure to the physical Universe. Ritual is the vehicle for cosmological teachings precisely because it is not reducible to a mythological narrative; it is instead constantly new, mutating, and palpably present in the here and now.

In most of what follows, I will be talking about specific components of the liturgical life of a community in terms of the dynamic generative principles that animate each. Some of these components are familiar ritual elements—circle castings, quarter calls, invocations of the Divine—and others are ritual practices that we are not quite so accustomed to thinking of as such, such as the rotation of ceremonial leadership, the practice of private devotional worship, and the rhetorical conjuration of “the Tribe.”