Are Wiccan Tools Really that Necessary?
Why oh why do Wiccans love their “stuff”? I recall in my early years of studying Wicca that my then High Priestess suggested that everyone in her group should all have their robes made in the same colour. Her idea was that if we all dressed in the same colour during Esbat and Sabbat rituals, we would feel a better connection with the community that was our coven. I found that somewhat curious given that in my supposedly novice opinion at the time, our main aim with Wicca was to forge a relationship with our idea of the Divine, not just with coven members. I wasn’t quite sure how everyone having the same coloured robe, regardless of how ‘cool’ it might be, actually fostered a deeper relationship with the Gods. But who was I to question this? I was simply an ignorant Seeker in a group of established and well trained Wiccan Priests and Priestesses.
The discussion around the ‘need’ versus ‘want’ of Wiccan ‘stuff’, those tools and artefacts we love to collect and use, abounds with views about the value of tools in contrast to the more important need to generate a relationship with the Gods. There appears to be a polemic argument with the voluntary (and in fact unnecessary) use of Wiccan tools at one end but with our love and passion for all things Wicca at the other. Whilst many Wiccans talk long and loud about the fact that we do not need all the paraphernalia in order to honour our Gods, we still go out and either buy or make a suite of tools and items that we then excuse simply as enhancing our practice.
Read almost any Pagan web page, log in to virtually any Wiccan blog or bulletin board and you will see that Wiccans adore their ritual tools. There are long, explanatory lists of tools, altar items, ritual artefacts and clothing and general paraphernalia available to the Wiccan practitioner. Buckland1 delivers not just a list of tools but also detailed descriptions on how to make a simple ritual robe and even how to forge an athame blade. Cunningham2 and a variety of other writers offer similar explanatory notes on Wiccan ritual items, often listing them in order of what they consider highest to lowest priority in terms of general ritual practice. More often than not the athame rates as the highest tool in terms of importance to any Wiccan followed by altar tools and ritual robes.
You don’t have to dig very deep on the internet to find a plethora of web shopfronts selling all manner of items that supposedly we need to embrace our practice and that support the undercurrent of thought that in fact these tools are a necessity rather than an enhancement. The marketing professionals would tell you that most of these virtual stores must be doing fairly good business because many of them have been around for quite some time. Research clearly indicates that Pagans generally are well educated people but statistically earn slightly less than the average wage earner largely because they tend to migrate toward lesser paid, helping professions 3. If this is the case, then we somehow seem to find the money to financially support the Wiccan artefact industry and as educated people we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t love our tools and paraphernalia. Moreover, research also shows that Wiccans spend proportionately more on Wiccan reading material than other minority religious practitioners4. We love to learn more about our religion and we love to dress up our practice with tools, with ritual items and paraphernalia and even dress ourselves in ritual robes that we somehow equate with more effective ritual practice. The real question here though is whether our love affair with all things Wiccan actually enhances or depletes our religious practice.
In the case of the High Priestess I introduced at the commencement of this piece and her contention that with everyone having the same coloured robes individuals would gain greater connection with the coven, this may well in fact be true. A considerable body of anthropological theory discusses how ritual and the symbols embedded within rites such as robes impart to practitioners a sense of identity and connection with the society in which that ritual takes place5. However, the role and responsibility of any religious practitioner is not just to connect with one another but to connect with deity. I doubt there is any significant research that proves that having a particular colour robe fosters a deeper relationship with one’s gods. Furthermore, and rather more arguably, is it absolutely necessary for a Wiccan to have an athame given that this appears to be the most important tool according to most Wiccan writers? Gerald Gardner introduced the double edged blade as a Wiccan tool of trade along with a number of other suspect items including the controversial scourge. In addition, as a naturist he proposed working in the nude and some other rather impractical ideas as Wiccan practice. If you’ve ever tried to conduct a serious meditative ritual in the nude when the mosquitoes are biting or the snow is falling around you causing painful itches or frostbite, I’m sure you have wondered at the common sense of such a proposal! Just because Gerald Gardner proposed a tool or particular practice as a Wiccan inclusion, surely does not mean it is sacrosanct if in the same breath we argue that our main purpose is to create a relationship with the Divine.
Given as well that Wicca proposes each person has the right to develop their own relationship with deity in a way that suits them (within the basic core of Wicca of course) does that not also mean that the use of Wiccan tools is a voluntary decision, not one that is necessary? Many Wiccans will support this argument, stating that the use of any tool is simply to enhance one’s ritual experience, however in practise that is not always the case. Seekers are often being taught that they really should have an athame, that they really should wear robes or go skyclad and that they need certain items on their altar in order to cast circles, conduct Wiccan ritual and in fact ‘be’ Wiccan. Such a claim is ludicrous. I can ‘be’ Wiccan without using an athame, without dressing up and without resorting to tools as props in lieu of a serious, dedicated and effective connection with the Gods.
The real danger here is that we may in fact end up worshipping our tools rather than worshipping our Gods. The tools become pseudo Gods as some physical Christian, Buddhist and other religious temples and churches have become places of awe rather than simply as venues for the worship of the Gods for whom they were built. While it is obvious that Wiccans love their tools, perhaps because they help them connect with what they perceive as being their ancestral or religious connections, what we must do is ensure that teach Seekers how to honour the Gods without all the paraphernalia so they are equipped with the foundational aspects of Wiccan ritual practice and only then introduce tools as an adjunct rather than as inclusive, necessary tools of trade.
Having said that, some of the fallout I am seeing now is dialogue about the guilt associated with tool use and the excuses put forward for their use. As Wiccans schooled in the foundational ritual practices of our religion, we should not need to make excuses for using tools or wearing robes or indulging in our passion for altar items of beauty and reverence. As long as we have that fundamental training and education in fostering a relationship with the Divine, then we should not be swayed and cajoled into the argument that tool use is utterly unnecessary. Tool use is voluntary and when used in conjunction with sound practice and ritual work, it is appropriate and effective. The strict argument that tool use is utterly inappropriate serves little purpose other than engender within new Wiccans a confusion about the validity of tools and a guilt about using items they find beautiful and as tolls of honour.
I own up completely to having an extensive suite of altar tools, to having custom made robes designed especially for me, for having all the bells and whistles of a Wiccan toolkit. Furthermore I love my robes, my artefacts, my ‘stuff’. I’m proud to place these items before my Gods as further evidence that I honour them by taking pride in how I present myself and my worship before them. I love that pre-ritual process of preparing the sacred space with particular items and preparing myself. This process ‘gears up’ my head for ritual work and places me in a better mental place for ritual work. But, and this is the crucial point, I did not base my Wiccan practice on my tools but rather based my Wiccan practice on building a relationship with the Divine. I learnt how to connect with deity, with the environment, with my own inner spirit first and then used my toolkit and ‘stuff’ to honour and enhance that journey even further. I therefore stand proud with all my Wiccan gear and I make no excuses for indulging in my love and passion for all things Wiccan.
In conclusion then, as Wiccan teachers, it is our duty to instruct in ritual tools and paraphernalia but not at the expense of the true meaning of ‘being’ Wiccan. As gatekeepers of Wiccan lore and practice, we must ensure that we teach Seekers how to develop and foster their relationship with the Divine as the ultimate quest and then introduce tool use as power enhancers. Moreover, we must enable people to adopt tool use as is their wish without associated guilt or the need to make excuses or justify why they have an expensive book of Shadows because they loved it or why they chose to dress up in spider lace, black velvet cloaks with tasselled hoods or whatever. These Wiccan tools of trade should be their choice without guilt but only where they are used as voluntary, unnecessary wants rather than needs.
1. Buckland, R., Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, 1986.
2. Cunningham, S., Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1st ed. revised). 2004.
3. Hume, L., Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia. 1997 and Rountree, K., Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist ritual-makers in New Zealand. 2004.
4. Greenwood, S., Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology. 2000.
5. Durkheim, E. (1976). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (2nd ed.). London: Allen & Unwin and Geertz, C. (1957). Ethos, Worldview and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols. The Antioch Review, 17 (4), 421-437.
Amethyst is first and foremost a
practicing Wiccan and second an academic and vocational training
specialist. She completed her PhD thesis via Curtin University in 2008
and her Whole Person theory and research experiences amongst the Wiccans
and Witches of Perth, Western Australia is due to be published later in
the year. Further information can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org