As a Gardnerian Witch and High Priestess, oath keeping and secrecy are core to my practice — even my identity as such. So enjoy, for a moment, me making like a contortionist, and trying to write frankly about oaths, secrecy, privacy, patience, and transparency.
My Outer Court is having a number of conversations about the nature of secrecy versus privacy, so I’m approaching our group practice as a sort of safe space-cum– sandbox for practicing oath keeping. There are no actual oaths taken, of course, which provides us a lot of latitude to, well, make mistakes. Making mistakes is critical to learning and, unlike school, there are no failing or passing grades — you just learn. I emphasize to my Outer Court that we sometimes only discern boundaries of secrecy and privacy by accidentally crossing them, by messing up. And how we handle these ‘mess-ups’ is critical to this learning.
As I said, there are no formal oaths in this Outer Court. But because of that, this becomes a space for practicing ‘perfect trust’.
For many Seekers, keeping magical practices secret from others isn’t just a preference — it’s a social necessity. Participating in a group magical practice requires a high degree of trust, in part because you need to know that the others in the group will keep your identity secret. This isn’t so hard if everyone in the group is ‘in the broom closet’, so to speak. But it’s not uncommon for some individuals to have very public personas as magical practitioners. And that’s great too! But practicing keeping the entire group practice secret then becomes much more essential. In many ways, it’s easier to be very conservative about uniform secrecy than to engage in gray areas.
Long and short, oaths are related to the dynamic of an entire practice and an entire group. While there are no oaths in Outer Court, we’re practicing the idea of oaths, that oaths serve a tradition, the group practicing that tradition, the individuals who make up that group, and (eventually) the legacy of that group.
Oaths only really matter to the group itself. They are, almost by definition, invisible to those who have not taken them. So in Outer Court, when we practice oath keeping, we’re practicing the idea of it, more than the thing itself. But as many magical practitioners know and exercise, maintaining a clear idea of a thing (however abstract) is core to any magical working!
For the record, if Gerald Gardner wrote about something in Witchcraft Today or The Meaning of Witchcraft, I’m basically comfortable discussing it. However, there are some things he discussed that I’m not comfortable talking about for my private own reasons. (We’ll get to this idea of privacy later.)
Secrecy is closely related to oath keeping of course. Simply put, oaths are maintained through secrecy. But secrecy is, well, a whole lot of gray murkiness.
T.W. re child abuse in this next passage.
As a parent, I remember having those conversations with my kid about ‘good secrets’ versus ‘bad secrets’. ‘Good secrets’ were things like surprise birthday parties, and occasionally practical jokes (at which my kid excels, for better or worse). And ‘bad secrets’ end up being, well, just about everything else. This can be as diverse as physical harm to a child, of course, but also something as ordinary as breaking a favorite vase and trying to hide the evidence, or being bullied on the playground and warned not to tell an adult.
Pretty much, if you’re worried about worse things happening to you, later on, it’s likely a ‘bad secret’.
But here’s a hint: I don’t keep my oaths because I’m worried about ‘bad things happening to me if I don’t’ — I keep my oaths because I honor my gods and my tradition. If I broke them, sure, people would be pissed at me, and my name would be mud. But that has zip to do with why I keep them. Again, I keep my oaths because I honor my gods, and I honor my tradition. And I’ll just have to leave it at that.
So secrecy is a bit of dichotomy — and that’s where privacy comes in.
Privacy is a very personal thing. It is something that the individual designates for themselves and is, really, something almost sacred, that is, outside of the ordinary and secular.
When I talk with others, I’m always aware, even at a very low level, that we are each tacitly respecting the privacy of the other. In some conversations, for example, I don’t ask about their sex lives, and they don’t ask about mine, because we both understand in an unspoken way that this would be a breach of privacy.
In this sense, privacy is partly a cultural construct. Things considered private in one culture aren’t necessarily private in another (and the definition of’ culture’ is a huge topic on its own, by the way, which I’ll have to save for another day).
In the United States, culture is hardly homogenous, and those who live in relatively diverse communities get to be kind of social ninjas, carefully navigating conversations to make sure we aren’t accidentally overstepping bounds of privacy in the process of getting to know someone. Occasionally we mess up, realize the faux pas, and apologize, quickly backtracking, even as those cultural differences are illuminated through the framework of privacy.
Trust is not something that is automatically given: It requires time. Over time, we build trust with others that we’ll mutually honor our respective spheres of privacy. As circumstances and relationships evolve over time, those spheres can and sometimes do shift. I have colleagues with whom I’ve never discussed my marital life, even though I consider them very good friends. Meanwhile, my friendships with other colleagues have deepened in such a way, that we’ve mutually, and gradually shifted our spheres of privacy, and now feel comfortable discussing our romantic partnerships and even religious beliefs.
Why is this the case with some individuals and not with others? Good question guaranteed and I’ve got no answers! But part of Outer Court training is allowing for a safe space in which those spheres of privacy can gradually, at their own rate, shift. It’s not gaurenteed to happen, of course, but it’s one method for building ‘perfect trust’.
These shifts happen slowly, through repeated interactions, and by repeated affirmations that we each respect and honor one another’s’ boundaries and privacy. And it’s through these slow, small, repeated interactions that we build trust. Sometimes, that trust forms a solid enough bond that we’re mutually comfortable revealing something more private about ourselves, something that reveals us each to the other as the deeper, more complex, more fragile people we have always intuited, and are now laid a little barer.
The key to this gradual privacy sharing, I think, is simply time. It requires patience.
This is so hard when you’re a Seeker! You’re just thrilled and excited and chomping at the bit to do all the things! And, yes, go ahead, do all the things!
But building the sort of trust that allows us each to share things previously private cannot — and should not — be rushed. It needs to happen at its own rate and trying to hasten that can actually undermine the slow building of trust.
Skyclad ritual is, of course, probably the most obvious example of this. Revealing our physical, naked bodies evokes a lot of different feelings for different people. We have to come to terms and make a peace with our own bodies first, and for every individual, this is a different process that deserves respect. For some, it’s easy. For others, it’s extraordinarily hard. And working skyclad is a multi-phase process. There’s finding that place of comfort within your own body, then there’s the readiness to be naked in front of others, and then there’s your own readiness to see others naked! It is a lot!
And so it’ll happen, in phases, and it’ll happen as that trust is built. For this reason, I encourage Seekers to practice their own solitary rituals skyclad. The first step really is embracing your own physical form within a magical context. That experience is different for each of us, but going through that on our own, helps you to begin to empathize with others who you may be circling with skyclad in the future. When we all know we’re making that peace with our own physical forms — and eventually embracing it — then we can begin the conversations about what it means to share that very private sphere with others.
But privacy is also practical. And group-based privacy faces outwards from a group-based magical practice in more overt ways. I require that all Seekers are transparent with their significant others (or one other very close family member or friend) that they are Seeking in this tradition and they will, eventually, be working skyclad. This is, in large part, for the sake of transparency and to begin those conversations with significant others about privacy, secrecy, and transparency right away.
Before I was initiated, I had a conversation with my husband that I would be taking oaths of secrecy, that — for the first time in our marriage — I would be keeping active secrets from him. Our marriage is pretty traditional and monogamous, (I actually am a soccer mom!) and I needed — we needed — to have honest conversations about that ahead of time.
And that conversation was an amazingly easy one. We trust each other, honor each other, and respect one another’s privacy. (See how these things are starting to intersect?)
But this was built on much earlier conversations we had when I was a Seeker. My (re-) discoverie of witchcraft looked like a religious revival to my husband (which it was, in many ways, to be fair) and this process triggered strong feelings about his own Catholic upbringing and his dad’s conversion to Born Again Christianity, both of which left deep scars on my husband and his family. We needed to be honest with each other about what that meant and which my own spiritual evolution looked like for us as a family.
Transparency is challenging in an oathbound tradition. As a High Priestess running an Outer Court, I have an obligation to my tradition, to my gods, and to my Seekers. I maintain my oaths, but my Seekers also deserve absolute respect and transparency from me in turn. This is part of the contortion act I’m performing, of course, and I’m figuring it out as I go. But these conversations with my Seekers about oaths, secrecy, privacy, patience, and transparency are a core part of both my work and theirs.
When I was a Seeker in Foxfire’s Outer Court, this training process was slow and patient, even when we Seekers were chomping at the bit. I feel a lot of gratitude for my own High Priestess and High Priest for this training. And even now, running this new Outer Court, figuring out how an O.C. is not like a classroom, and not like a family, and how it’s entirely its own unique micro-community — I’m still learning, seemingly daily, new things about the patience of secrecy.