What is Wicca?
Alexandrians define Wicca as a Pagan Mystery faith that is initiatory, oath bound and experiential in nature, with ancient roots originating in the British Isles. However, the term Wicca has been co-opted by the popular Pagan/Neo-Wiccan movement that has grown significantly in the past twenty or so years. To differentiate the original Wiccan traditions from the newer non-initiatory groups, in the United States we now refer to ourselves as British Traditional Wicca (BTW) , and in Europe we are usually known as Traditional Wicca (TW) . To simplify things, in this article when we refer to Wicca, we are referring only to BTW/TW unless otherwise indicated.1
History of the Alexandrian Tradition of the Wicca:
It’s important to remember that “traditions” as we now know them did not exist at the beginnings of the “The Alexandrian Tradition.” Our Tradition has its roots in what is now called Gardnerian Wicca, which at that time was simply called “The Wica, ” or “The Old Religion.”
The name “Alexandrian” is generally viewed by the Initiates of the Tradition as a reference to the “founder, ” Alex Sanders himself, as well as a reference to the Great Library of Alexandria, which was the center of Occult knowledge in the ancient world.
Alex Sanders was initiated into Wicca in the early 60’s. He was later well known as a Ceremonial Magician, as well as for his media antics and the title “King of the Witches” which was given to him by the leaders of some of his Covens in the late 60’s.
According to the accounts by his ex-wife Maxine Sanders, he was a member of at least two Covens before marrying Maxine and founding the Alexandrian “London Coven” from which many modern Alexandrians descend.
Alex was flamboyant and, among other things, a born showman. He played the press at every opportunity, much to the dismay of more conservative Wiccan Elders of the time. Alex also was known for being a healer, diviner, and a powerful Witch and magician. His forays into the media led to the publication of the romanticized biography King of the Witches, by June Johns, and later the publication of the classic Wiccan “coven biography, ” What Witches Do, by Stewart Farrar. The Sanders became household names in the UK during the 60’s and 70’s, and are responsible to a great degree for bringing the Craft into the public eye for the first time. An excerpt from the profile of Maxine Sanders puts it well:
“Despite the extreme interest of the paparazzi, the many sincere Initiations performed in Maxine and Alex’s Covensteads during and since that period, saw the inception and fashioned a lineage of Witchcraft that has since spread throughout the world.”
And indeed it has.
In part as a result of Sanders’ media antics, as well as conflicts between himself and two other well-known Wiccan High Priestesses at the time, a rift formed in the Wiccan community. It grew into a schism, which resulted in the gradual birth of what would later be known as the Alexandrian Tradition of the Wicca.
Thus was born the first of the modern Wiccan “traditions.”
The term “Alexandrian” was said by Maxine Sanders to have been coined by Stewart Farrar during the writing of the book What Witches Do in 1970. However, an interview with Sanders by Stewart Farrar in 1969 sheds new light on the topic. Alex is quoted as saying “those [witches] that don’t want publicity tend to refer to my witches as ‘Alexandrians.'” So there we have it. Either the term was a creation of Alex himself or the result of a grassroots moniker much in the way the term “Gardnerian” developed.
The early initiates of the Sanders’ referred to themselves simply as “the Wicca, ” or Witches. The name of the Sanders’ particular lineage was later codified in the early 70’s. Our Tradition has been both fortunate and unfortunate enough to be one of the most, if not the most documented Wiccan Tradition to date. Naturally many misconceptions have arisen about our Tradition, which we will be happy to set straight in this essay.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Alexandrians work Ceremonial Magic, such as Qabalah, Angelic Magic, and Enochian. Some do and some don’t. Alex Sanders was constantly evolving his own magical practices and passed newly found knowledge and techniques to his initiates. This resulted in many different lineages descending from him, each with its own unique particulars but all sharing the same Traditional Wiccan core.
Some Alexandrians are strongly oriented towards ceremonial magic, while others are more oriented towards folk magic. It depends on one’s lineage or origin, as well as individual and coven focus. Training has always been a hallmark of the Alexandrian Tradition, with each new generation adding onto the previous generation’s knowledge, making for more informed and well rounded Priest (esses) and Witches.
This diversity gives us a thriving and dynamic tradition, with our feet solidly grounded in Traditional Wicca and our eyes looking to the future.
Other common misconceptions are that the Sanders and Farrars have published our entire tradition and our Book of Shadows. Any thorough read of either the Sanders’ books, and the Farrars’ books will prove this to be false, by the authors’ very own statements.
Alex Sanders passed beyond the veil on Beltane Eve, April 30, 1988, after suffering from lung cancer. Upon Sanders’ death a council of British Elders of the Alexandrian Tradition was convened, which issued the following document:
“Statement of the Council of Elders of the Alexandrian Tradition”
A meeting of the Elders of the Alexandrian Tradition was held on Thursday 12th May 1988.
The Law of the Craft has always been that a King is chosen by the Craft when need arises. After due consideration, a unanimous motion was carried that there is no need for a King of the Witches.
This is fortunate, as there is no one properly prepared for the role.
Alex Sanders led the Hidden Children of the Goddess into the light. It was a task well done and it was his last and most earnest wish that they should continue their work into the light.”
Such a council has never again been convened.
Traditionally, we work with and worship the Old Gods of Europe, primarily focusing on Our Lady of the Moon and her Consort, the Horned One. Our Gods are not jealous, and Alexandrian initiates may work with other deities on a personal or group basis as well.
We aim for a personal connection with and an understanding of deity, and ancestors, as well as the rhythms and tides of nature. Hence we have no laity, only Priests and Priestesses.
We believe in the power of magic, and use both traditional and experimental techniques to achieve our goals.
Role of Clergy:
Wicca is very different from other religions in that we have no laity. Every initiate of our tradition is a Priest or Priestess of our Gods in their own right.
Some of our clergy are very active in their local Pagan communities, doing handfastings and other rites of passage, as well as public Sabbat festivals. Others are called to work away from public life and focus inwardly on their covens and personal callings.
Organization of Groups:
The Alexandrian Tradition is organized into covens. Some groups work skyclad while others prefer to work robed. Regardless of personal coven preference, certain rites are performed skyclad by all recognized Alexandrian covens.
To become an Alexandrian initiate one must be initiated by a properly prepared and authorized Alexandrian High Priestess or Priest in a cross-gendered Initiation. Our traditional initiatory rites must be used without subtraction, as passed through each lineage from the original Alexandrian coven. It is not possible to “self-Initiate” into Alexandrian Wicca.
Our Tradition consists of three grades known as degrees. A first-degree initiate is a Priest or Priestess of the tradition; a second degree Initiate is a High Priest or Priestess of the tradition and a coven elder. The third degree is often reserved for coven leaders. The time between each degree can vary greatly from one lineage to another, and depends on each line’s and coven’s focus and views on the initiatory and training experience. In the Alexandrian Tradition, one progresses through the degrees not through time in grade, but through growth within oneself and the Gods.
A second degree Initiate can hive, form a new coven, and may initiate up to his or her own degree in most lines, with the permission of their elders. Second-degree High Priest (ess) -led covens are under the supervision and authority of the HPS and HP of the Mother Coven until they are deemed ready to take the third degree. The amount of autonomy a second degree Elder has varies from line to line. A third Degree High Priest (ess) is completely autonomous in our tradition, answering only to the Gods and the tradition as a whole. Autonomy does not mean lack of accountability.
In addition, a number of lines have a neophyte or dedicant degree, allowing a Proper Person (see standards of conduct) to participate in certain rituals before making the lifelong commitment to our Gods. This exposes the candidates to the tradition and to the close family bond, which is the heart of a coven. It also allows both the candidate and the Coven Elders to decide if the vocational calling is there as well as the necessary interpersonal dynamics. Our tradition is matrifocal. The High Priestess is considered “first among equals” and holds the final word in all coven matters.
Traditionally the word of the High Priest (ess) is law within the coven, although the authority of coven leaders does not extend beyond Craft matters. It has been called a benevolent dictatorship by some. Traditionally the High Priest co-leads the coven in cooperation with and in support of the High Priestess.
Initiatory lineage is traced cross-gendered (female to male to female etc.) back to the late Alex Sanders and his High Priestesses, such as Maxine. While lineage is not oath bound within our tradition, it is not a matter of public record either, and is often considered “private.”
Shortly after Initiation each initiate begins to copy the Book of Shadows (BOS) out of his or her initiator’s handwritten book. It is considered the responsibility of each initiator to pass on the Tradition, both written and oral lore, as it was passed to them with no omissions. In this way the continuity of our heritage is ensured.
The Alexandrian Book of Shadows consists of a common core of contents, with some variation from line to line, since Alex and his initiates were constantly evolving their craft. The core BOS, and Initiations however, are key for legitimate Alexandrians, as they provide a central commonality for us all.
Contrary to popular belief one cannot purchase an Alexandrian Book of Shadows, nor download one from the Internet. While these books exist, they were constructed from published information, and were intended for use as a set of documents similar in style to the BOS by serious students of the tradition. They are, however, different from the BOS used by initiates. The only way to obtain a complete Alexandrian Book of Shadows is to be initiated in the time-honored way.
The nature and exact practice of Alexandrian covens may vary from line to line and coven to coven, with certain limits. Training has always been strongly emphasized in our tradition, second only to service to the Gods. Most Alexandrian covens have a strong family feel, as well as the feeling of being part of a larger, international extended family.
Alexandrian Wicca celebrate the eight Sabbats of the wheel of the year. We also traditionally meet for Esbats on the full moon for workings, training and celebration of our Lady.
Contrary to popular belief we do not work with the cycles of the Oak and Holly Kings as written by the Farrars for their book Eight Sabbats For Witches. While individual covens and Witches may decide to work the rituals, the Oak King/Holly King cycle is NOT a part of the Alexandrian Tradition, or derived from it in any but the most surface way. The Farrars themselves make this very clear in their book, yet this misinformation still persists.
Standards of Conduct:
Initiation and elevation into the Wicca is a privilege, not a right. Initiation is not offered lightly. To be initiated into Wicca as a Priest or Priestess, one must first be a proper person*. The Elders of a coven determine this – with input from those already in the group. A candidate’s sincerity, character, maturity, personal spiritual focus, level of commitment, sense of ethics, and personality are all factors that are considered. In addition, the Elders look for more esoteric signs. First and foremost, they must consult with the God/dess and obtain their approval. The Elders must also consider whether the Seeker would bring harm to the Craft, or misuse or abuse the Mysteries with which they will be entrusted upon initiation.
In short, the Elders must rely on their fair and balanced judgment, and their own intuition. There must be good personal chemistry between new initiates and the coven into which they are initiated. A person who is generally suitable for initiation might not be accepted into one group but might mesh well with another. The Priesthood is not for thrill-seekers or glory-hogs, and an initiatory path is not wise for mentally, spiritually, or emotionally unbalanced individuals. (*Note: One must also maintain the status of being a proper person once initiated. Those unwilling or unable to do so may be asked to leave the coven.)
It is a tenet of Wicca that money is never charged for initiating and/or teaching our religion. In the Alexandrian Tradition, some covens may share the cost for basic coven expenses by paying reasonable dues, or may simply “pass the Witch hat” as expenses arise.
We have an obligation to maintain the privacy of others who are initiates. Therefore, to reveal the name or identity of another Witch without his or her express prior permission is not appropriate at any time.
The ethical guide of the Alexandrian Tradition is the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Contrary to popular belief this only states that all harmless activity is permissible. Harmlessness is a worthy ideal, but it isn’t to be taken literally. There is simply no way that any person can go through life without causing something (or someone) else harm. We are, however, fully responsible for our choices in life. One way that the Rede is interpreted is to follow your highest ideal (your Will) – which implies that it is best to try to choose the path of least harm. As we grow in our understanding of the mysteries of the cycles and tides of life, we begin to realize our connectedness to all beings of the earth. The concept of “True Will” then begins to suggest our actively working toward the greater good of all in whatever way we feel is appropriate.
Ways of Worship:
The Alexandrian Tradition is an oath bound Mystery Tradition; therefore many of the details of how and why we work are secret. This secrecy among initiates of British Traditional Wicca has been a target for detractors, implying that either we have something to hide, or maintain a veneer of secrecy for the purpose of ego-stroking. Simply put, neither of these is true. We hold our tradition and lore to be sacred and private, and in some cases it provides unintentional side effects if used by those not trained properly in our techniques. Alexandrians maintain that privacy of sanctity through secrecy. We do not claim to have the secrets to the universe. In fact, most of our “secrets” would be of little to no interest or use to those not initiated as Wicca.
Suffice it to say that our teachings focus on the development of a personal relationship with Deity, and a keen awareness and attunement with the cycles of Nature through ritual and in our daily lives.
We use traditional BTW techniques to gain self-mastery and develop our skills as Witches so that we may help others and ourselves. Experimental methods are also often used, for our tradition provides us with a firm foundation upon which to build and improvise.