Ssshhh! It’s a secret!

Wiccan Rede * Autumn 1989 by Merlin Sythove

We’ve probably all had the experience at some point in time. Picture it. You’re wandering through a wood, having a nice stroll on a sunny afternoon. All of a sudden, behind the thick bushes on your left, you notice a high wall. It looks like a garden wall: about two metres high, with thick pillars to strengthen it, and as far as you can tell it looks at least a century old. You keep on walking, and a bit further on you notice a small wooden door in the wall. It is closed, but it looks so old and rusty that you know you could open it if you wanted to.

What do you do? Are you going to force that little door and see what is behind the wall? Or are you content with your fantasy of a fairy garden full of sunlight and bright people, with butterflies and sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, with a friendly fountain spilling crystal clear water over mossy masonry?

I personally would choose for keeping my fantasy rather than the possible disappointment of seeing what is really there. I’ve grown up too much probably …

But the story hasn’t ended. You’ve been standing at that little door for a few minutes, contemplating your next action, when all of a sudden you’re sure you can hear soft sweet music, and the laughter of people behind that wall. You hear the tinkling of glasses and the playful giggles of small children. Could it be true? Could your fantasy be reality? Does your fairy garden exist, here, now, just behind this rusty and rotten garden door? Have you found something that you’ve been looking for, ever since you were too old for fairy tales, even though you weren’t aware of the fact that you were searching?

Your aching heart compels you to open that door. To see! To hear! To become part of this lovely vision! To enter the garden, to drift away into dreamland, to mingle with the friendly denizens of this other world and to forget your materialistic society for ever! Will you open the door? Can you ignore the warnings of your common sense? Would you like someone else to open the door and tell you what’s behind it?

Suppose I open the door for you. After all, I’ve been there before. I put my wrinkled hand upon the old latch, and lift it with some difficulty. I push it open, carefully, so the rotten planks don’t fall apart and spoil the mystery, and I look through it. Then I close the door again, and turn around with a puzzled look on my face. You feel your heart sink, and already decide to stick with your fantasy, and not to believe what I’m going to tell you. Still, you want to hear what I saw, so I tell you. Behind the door is … nothing. Just more wood, more trees. The wall doesn’t enclose anything: it’s just a bit of wall leading nowhere. In the distance I saw a family with two children strolling through the wood. They could have been your neighbours … Now that I think about it, actually the wall looks like we’re on the inside of whatever it once enclosed … And back comes your fantasy: wouldn’t it be grand to rebuild the wall, and rebuild the garden just like it must have been once …?

So what’s the point of this disappointing story?

To show, if you weren’t already aware of the fact, that ‘the unknown’ often gives rise to fantasising, and that fantasy is a very powerful motivating factor for people’s behaviour. Fantasising about a possible fairy garden is of course one thing: fantasising about ‘witches’ and ‘magic’, about the dark and secret meetings and spells and wild goings-on is a completely different cup of tea. In the story I’ve just told you there is no way out: you know that it is fantasy. However, suppose I had told you that yes, your fairy garden existed, and that you had found it, and if I like you well enough I may take you with me and let you meet some of the people, and they would like you too and welcome you and let you forget all of your sorrows, and that I was one of ‘them’ too? Would you still have been content with your fantasy? Or would you give your life to find out, either way? Would you be disappointed to find out that it is nice, but not so very different from your own circle of friends and your own back yard?

Witches are always on the fence. They have to be, because the ‘fence’ is the word ‘witch’ itself. Without a mysterious garden wall there is no fantasy. Without the word ‘witch’ there is no fantasy. That witches do secret things is always implied. Just go back to the story. Even if you had looked through the door yourself, and seen what I told you was there, you would still have your fantasy. Because who would build a bit of wall doing nothing? Someone must have had a reason for it once! It must have enclosed a garden once! Whatever you do, the wall is there, and because it is there your fantasy doesn’t go away. Reason tells you that your fantasy must have some grain of truth in it.

Witches are there, too. And they call themselves ‘witches’. There must be a reason. Even if they tell you what they do, even if they hand you a dozen books by the Farrars, Valiente, Gardner etcetera, your fantasy won’t go away because they call themselves ‘witches’, and deep down you know that there must be something special, something secret and wonderful and also something a bit scary to ‘being a witch’!

Would you believe me if I told you that witches have no secrets? Probably not. There always would remain this tiny little doubting voice, arguing that if these people use the word ‘witch’, that there must be something going on. And even when you appear to believe me, and maybe think it is cute to become part of this group, and call yourself a witch, and appear all mysterious to your friends and neighbours, you may still hope that I was wrong.

Are there secrets, then? Aren’t you just dying to know?

Well, some people believe that there are secrets. Newspaper people usually think that there are secrets, and any nutcase can have his or her name in the newspapers with the wildest fantasies. Respectable Christians can have their name in the newspaper with their wildest fantasies too. Witches themselves often say they have secrets, which of course is the cause of all the trouble. The public knows that everyone has secrets: MI5, the CIA, the Moonies, Witches, the government, you name it.

Secrets come in all shapes and sizes, and the word ‘secret’ is another one of those ‘garden wall’ type words: it compels us to fantasise about what is behind the wall …

So how about the witches’ secrets then? As I have tried to say, it all depends on what your fantasy is of a ‘secret’! You could argue that the secrets of the witches actually don’t exist. Or that they are not secrets, but simply ‘private information’. Whichever way you like to look at it. And if some secrets do exist, they are so secret that you wouldn’t understand it even if you were told …

Let me explain a bit further (not that you’re going to believe me, but here goes).

Witches don’t have world-shattering secrets like how to make the atom-bomb or how to get free energy out of a parallel universe. Witches do have the ‘MI5’ type of secrets though: who, where, when, what, why, if, etcetera. Witches don’t usually like to talk about their coven (except to a member of their own ‘family’, of course!) because in their eyes this sort of information is simply private information, and does not concern an outsider. You wouldn’t tell just any stranger who you’ve been out with over the weekend would you? Or what you and your spouse plan to do tonight? There is nothing very ‘secret’ about this information, but it is considered ‘private’. So questions about how big their coven is, who is a member, when and where they are going to meet, what sort of rituals they do; these questions are usually met with a blank stare or with a polite “One doesn’t ask questions of too personal a nature” (the public needs to be educated on what a witch considers to be ‘private’)!

Why is this so? Why are witches so ‘secretive’ about simple details when all other religions pride themselves in their membership count and their ability to snare leading members of the local society?

This has everything to do with the fact that witches consider their religion as something special, something to treasure and to share with just a few intimate friends. They definitely don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry to be coerced into joining because they may dislike Tom, argue with Dick and Harry may be the boss. To witches, the whole concept of ‘religion’ is ‘a private affair’ – something you share with your Gods, with Mother Nature, with your partner or a few close friends whom you can trust. A religion is the most intimate contact with the supernatural (read ‘God’, ‘Goddess’, ‘Gods’ or ‘Force’ as necessary) that one can experience. Trying to open yourself to this contact on the one hand whilst on the other trying to close yourself off from your animosity towards the person sitting next to you just doesn’t work!

The other type of secrets witches are said to have are the ones found in the ‘Book of Shadows’, which is supposedly full of centuries old handed down rituals and magical practices.

Well, I’m afraid that this is just newspaper hype. Many philosophical points and ritual ingredients or ritual symbols are indeed centuries old – anywhere up to 30 centuries and more. But these are definitely not secret. I’ll give you some examples. Witches have a new year, called Hallowe’en in today’s society, and Samhain in some older societies. To witches the year (and everything else) begins with a period of fertilisation and rest in the dark. So our day starts with the evening, our year with the autumn, and life with conception in the darkness of the womb. This idea stems from the Celts, and possibly from long before them too, way before the birth of Christ. Nothing secret about all this: any witch will be glad to explain to you what Hallowe’en means to them and why they celebrate it. They may explain the symbolism of silly games like ducking apples or forecasting the future with molten lead, and tell you all about the link between Hallowe’en and death – if you haven’t figured out that a ‘New Year’ also means that an ‘Old Year’ dies.

Another illustration is the ceremony of Cakes and Wine. Virtually all religions have their way of saying ‘thanks’ to the Gods and celebrating a ritual meal with them. The Christians have it, the Jews have their sacred meal, the Muslims have it, the Hindu’s offer food and drink to their gods. Nothing secret here either.

The rest of this Book of Shadows is just as ‘un-secret’: it is only the particulars, like the words and symbols that are used, which differ. A lot of those words were written by Gardner, or Doreen Valiente, and their contemporaries, and even today rituals are changed, altered and amended. If you’re interested, read ‘Eight Sabbats for Witches’ by the Farrars – you won’t find a more detailed insight into some witches’ rituals than that.

Don’t ask a witch about her particular wording of the ritual though: again she (or he) will consider this to be private information. The words and symbols are her own way of communicating with the Gods, specific to her own ‘family’. If you want to meet the Gods as well: fine, but use your own words!

And what about all these ‘magical secrets’ then? Isn’t this Book of Shadows supposedly full of magical formulae and sinister sentences?

Well, that depends. There are particular rituals on how to do specific magical work, and like any other art such as making your favourite jam: the ingredients are secret. But they’re no better or worse than what you can find in a good number of magical textbooks. More to the point though: the magical bits are for the most part individual additions to the Book of Shadows, and not an integral part of the ‘handed down’ version.

The thing that the media are usually interested in, is “What is it like to be a witch?” or “How does it feel to be initiated?” Silly questions. What does an orange taste like? Well, if you don’t know then no amount of explaining from me will make you know what an orange tastes like! Just try! But remember: once you’ve tasted an orange, you’ll never be the same again …!

Aren’t there any real secrets then?

I said you wouldn’t believe me! You probably think that there must be more to it than this. That there can’t be smoke without a sabbath fire somewhere. Well, maybe you’re right …

Think of it like this. There is nothing secret about a marriage ceremony. Everyone knows about people being married and having children. Read all about it, ask everyone you know. So what’s the secret then?

Being married!

So the ultimate secret of the witches is … that they’re witches! Which wasn’t a secret in the first place, but there you go.

I hope I have shown that our language and our choice of words leads to expectations and fantasies, and that no amount of inside information will change our preconceived ideas. We use language to represent reality. The most frightening thing that can happen to us is to be faced with a reality for which we have no words. And the most difficult thing to accept is someone else explaining to you that your ‘language-reality’ is not as real as you thought it was! Nobody believes you’re not a criminal if you say you’re a member of the mafia. Nobody believes you have no secrets if you say you’re a witch. It’s as simple as that!

But just between you and me: let’s keep it a secret …