Last night I had the pleasure of acting as a priestess-counselor for another priestess. (For the sake of narrative, I will call her M.) She was concerned that her speaking would involve the revelation of oath-bound information and that had prevented her from reaching out for quite some time. M, however, felt that there were current events occurring based on a former group she had been with, and that the oath-bound materials were a core of the issue. Not being able to speak to anyone from that group without risking (psychic) injury, she turned to me.
In the end, M. invoked the blessing of Isis to have compassion for her if she was going to transgress, and I took an oath not to reveal anything to another. . . and we talked.
And now I’m writing about it.
M., we agreed, had suffered some very specific and directed mental and emotional abuse at the hands of her previous group leader. Part of that scenario involved telling M. that specific information was hers to disseminate (mainly through writing, but also through teaching and passing along the tradition). The leader marked specific information as oath-bound, which M. had always taken seriously. The trouble arose when the leader changed her mind. Then she began to tell my friend that the info was never hers to share, permission was rescinded.
This took place over several years, and all the while M was being elevated until she was made a 3* . . . traditionally a time when the witch could hive off and form her own group; literally passing down the group’s lore and training.
You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that this scenario got worse. My friend was constantly being discouraged from writing about witchcraft, except materials for the group — nothing should be published, even her own personal musings and feelings. She couldn’t be doing any part of the public work of being a priestess. The leader wanted her attention, her efforts, but refused to allow M. to have a public presence as a witch. A crisis of sorts came after M. had a nice essay printed in public (print) journal and her bio mentioned the name of the group she’d been working in. The leader was angry and took M. to task, informing her that everything she’d been taught was oath-bound, even the name of the group could not be revealed. (I, however, am going to call them Swamp Coven)
Yes: even the name.
M. left the group. She admits, she didn’t do it well. It was messy, and accusations (mostly unfounded) were made. M. chalked it up to a learning experience and that messiness has kept her away from most group work thereafter.
This is not a tale of terrible trauma, it’s one of subtlety. Of gas-lighting instead of beatings. Of bewilderment, not despair.
It is a tale of a leader abusing her group.
Members of Swamp Coven have reached out to M. over the years, not to reconcile, or apologize, or even ‘clear the air’. They have reached out to gossip and (mostly) to let her know they are paying attention to what she says. Even though she no longer acknowledges her time with them in any way, *they* remember. And, it seems, they are angry at her success.
From my PoV: it’s pretty sick. It’s got the hallmarks of obsession in all the nasty ways.
Being a leader means looking out for your people. In witchcraft it also means helping them become the best they possible can be. This is not a religion of sheep, following the flock leader hither and fro. Its a religion of priest/esses growing a developing their abilities, becoming better and better people along the way.
I always tell my students (and remind them of this later if they become coven mates) that I did not carve out the path, I’m just more familiar with it than they are. In time, they will be as familiar, and eventually they’ll be teaching me new paths. That’s how growth works.
Using ‘oath-bound’ as a way to keep a student from doing her Work in the world is just twisted.
I’m not saying nothing can be bound, far from it. But since when is the name of the group oath-bound? Group-specific teachings, rituals, spellwork, all of that can be oath-bound. But you don’t get to hand over a bit of poetry from Scott Cunningham and, because you are using it in ritual, call it oath-bound. More to the point, when M. wrote about magick she never included anything specific from the group. The leader felt that anything she wrote about magick would be oath-bound because it had to do with the groups’ magick.
Let me clarify that: Because M worked with Swamp Coven, she was told to never write anything magick-related ever again without specific permission from the leader. ANYTHING.
- A paean to Aphrodite (a deity not worshiped by the group)
- A hoodoo-based conjuring (not a practice found anywhere within the Swamp Coven’s — Trad. Wicca basically — teachings)
- A public ritual with another group, say Reclaiming, to focus attention on climate change
All of those things were specifically forbidden to M. because of her affiliation with Swamp Coven. Moreover, when she did leave, she was told she couldn’t ever do anything public with magick because it would be oath-bound to the group. Madness!
This was a scenario she carried around for years. Recent events have been pulling this up in a variety of icky ways and M. has been doing the work to uncover the issues and release them. Which is why she reached out to me, to act as a sounding board and provide priestess to priestess perspective and counseling.
This essay is as much about providing evidence of a more subtle form of abuse as much as I am calling it out.
Let me be clear: It’s not about keeping a groups’ teachings and workings secret — almost every magickal group has some amount of material that is specific to them and their workings that is Not To be Revealed. But trying to saying that *everything* is oath-bound crosses over into isolationism — a favored tool of cultists and abusers. Everything done within a group is not oath-bound. It may be confidential, but unless it is tradition-specific in some fashion, it is not oath-bound. (One caveat: if you are told before you join that even the name cannot be revealed then you know what you are getting into.)
As part of that, if you are told ‘this is oath-bound and this not’ then pay sharp attention if you are later told that previously ‘free’ information is now oath-bound. What changed? Why? If its whimsy, that’s a bad sign. Oath-bound is sacred, and serious.
All vows are.
It can be tricky to navigate shared spaces online and off in which people call themselves ‘witch’ but doesn’t practice the same way as others who also use that label. Just saying ‘it’s ok to talk, we’re all initiates’ isn’t sufficient to reveal oath-bound material — you need to all be initiates of the same tradition.
Ye gods, it can be really uncomfortable to be given information that I would consider oath-bound and expected to reciprocate. Heck, I don’t even share changes within my own coven’s litany with my daughter coven (and vice versa) because they are going in a different way and we’re diverging. (A slight digression: I would talk with their leader about what we are changing and why, but very little, if anything, would be ‘handed down’ to replace that which they are using.)
I think about it like talking about sex — I can talk in public about being with my partner and that we have a great sex life. With people I know more personally (like my students, or friends), I might also reveal a deeper level of knowledge about our love making. In fact, when teaching, I may go even further and provide examples about how sex can open the doors to understanding Deity at a more intimate level. But actual oath-bound information would be tradition-specific sex magick rituals.
As an example, oath-bound material can be referred to in rings, like the old Outer and Inner courts:
- basic level: We also have eight Sabbats.
- more intimate: The Sabbat rituals are designed to bring us into deeper communication with the Deity.
- deepest level: Here are the actual texts of the Sabbat rituals.
I value my oaths deeply; to hear of another person using their sacredness to harm another is sickening.
May my tale, shared with you, provide another beacon of light to cleanse the disease created.
(As a point of fact, after all was said and done, I was told nothing that would be considered oath-bound, even the name of the group. I was told behaviors, situations, timeframes, and names. Other than references to elevation rituals, and the names of the two they worship I wasn’t told anything magickal about that situation at all.)