A few years ago, while researching the origins of my family coven, I set up a few interviews with people who had known its founders. The stories they told me reached back further than I have been alive, back to the 1970s, when the original American coven in our line came into existence. One of the questions I had was how the people who formed the coven even found each other in the first place. It’s trouble enough to find interested parties today, when Wicca has been an established, if not always accepted, religious tradition for decades. How much harder would it have been back then?
One of the people I interviewed told me that he first met the woman who would become our original high priestess through something he called an “occult pen-pal service” by the name of “The Cauldron.” As he described it, people interested in Witchcraft and the occult would buy what were effectively personal ads in “The Cauldron” and hope for other prospective magickal partners to respond to them. In fact, the first iteration of our coven was a “silver web” of otherwise-solitary practitioners who had connected through these personal ads and promised to do their personal workings in collaboration with their long-distance Wiccan partners.
This was not the only time in my research I found those sorts of stories; the pen-and-paper letter chain came up again many times, often connecting Witches across continents and oceans. The founder of my line adopted at least one apprentice by correspondence through one of these ads, leading to a long relationship in which he sometimes sent audio cassettes through the mail with his lessons about Witchcraft. (Needless to say, I would give at least a few of my teeth for those tapes!)
I found – and still find – those stories extraordinary. My experiences as a Pagan are all wrapped in the fact that I grew up in the religion; the bonds I made with other Pagans were, at least until I reached adulthood, entirely with people whom I knew on a local, familial level. In some ways I have always had trouble figuring out how anyone could have started what has now become the “Pagan community” – how did anybody find each other? How did anyone know there were others to be found?
“Honestly, I don’t recall now how I first learned about it,” my elder told me when I asked him how he found out about “The Cauldron.” “It could have been advertised in one of the astrology rags I bought at the bookstore. Or it could have been in one of the gossip papers my step-mother loved – you know, things like The Enquirer, The Star, and such.” Looking back, it all seems so unlikely: a person spies an advertisement, writes a letter, hosts an esbat, creates a whole world for other people to live in.
Naturally, thinking about “The Cauldron” and that now-gone time of postal service connections leads me to think about how Witchcraft and Paganism have adapted to the changes in communication that have swept through our society. I recall when my coven first discovered email, which at first delighted us (think of all the things the coven could talk about, now that we could talk without all being in the same room!) and then almost caused the coven to dissolve (think of all the things we would never have said out loud if we were in the same room!).
Every revolution in communications technology has made its appearance in the way Pagans conduct our affairs. Indeed, we may have been early adopters, especially because we didn’t have much in the way of the traditional infrastructure that more established religions had. The genesis of a site like WitchVox, which lasted for 22 years before closing down last year, came from an intersection of two facts: Pagans were ahead of the curve in terms of adopting the internet, and Pagans were still rightfully suspicious of revealing themselves on mainstream platforms. Both of these made a Pagan-specific website for making connections a practical and desirable construct.
These days, most of the business of my coven takes place in a Facebook group, something nobody could have seen coming back in the 70s. On the other hand, perhaps it’s not so different. I spend too much of my time scrolling through Reddit on nights when my insomnia acts up, and on many of the popular Pagan-themed subreddits, one finds, again and again, posts by people new to our umbrella of faiths asking the same kinds of questions. I’ve tried to set up an altar – did I do it right? What books should I read? How do I know if the gods are pleased with me?
It can be annoying to see the same kinds of questions asked so often, but it also communicates a truth that has not changed in the four-and-a-half decades since my elders first wrote to each other: for many of us, especially those of us first venturing out into these strange waters we call Paganism, the experience is lonely and difficult. Writing that first post – like writing a letter to “The Cauldron” way back when – is like signaling from a life raft.
What concerns me as I think through this history is how now most of the conversation happening within our community is happening in spaces owned and mediated by forces that are outside of the community. While WitchVox was not a perfect space – and neither were the listservs and letter chains that preceded it – there was a sense of accountability to the Pagan community that came with it. It was a place for and about us. That’s not really the case with a subreddit, which is beholden to the overall corporate mission of Reddit despite being moderated by Pagans; it’s even less the case with social media sites that don’t have any interest in us beyond the asking price of our data.
It’s worth considering whether that’s a set of circumstances we’re happy with, or if we still desire spaces that are specifically made for Pagans. We will always need places to speak with one another and greet new members of our religions – the question is where those places will be, and who will ultimately control the forms they take.