Secrecy and Wicca: How
Wiccans tend to be against secrets. Most Wiccans are against secret lists of banned web sites in Internet monitoring software and against secret decision making in government. Most Wiccans know that too much secrecy can easily be used to cover up things that would fare very poorly if exposed to public scrutiny, such as blocking access to Pagan web sites while claiming to only block porn and hate sites.
Unfortunately, some Wiccans do not practice what they preach when it comes to secrecy. While they condemn secrecy in others, they still maintain broad oaths of secrecy about their particular practices. While keeping most religious and magical material oathbound might have been necessary during the Burning Times or in England prior to the repeal of the laws against Witchcraft, I certainly see no need for it now -- at least in most "first world" countries. Names and addresses of group members, perhaps, but ritual information, no.
Those who insist that secrecy is necessary in Wicca generally use some common arguments to support their position. What follows are my responses to some of the common reasons I've seen presented over the years in support of keeping material oathbound.
1) It's always been done that way.
My Response: There's little evidence to support this claim. Most of the true family trads I know of do not have oathbound information. In some, certain empowerment/initiation rituals can only be performed on family members, but information per se isn't really an oathbound secret. As far as I can tell, Wicca seems to have acquired its ideas of oathbound material from the Masons and from the magical lodges of the 1700-1800s.
2) Wicca is a mystery religion.
My Response: By definition, mysteries must be experienced. You can read about them or hear them described, but will not understand them until you experience them (and you are prepared to understand them). The real reason for keeping such rituals secret has always appeared to me to be for control and prestige reasons. Having secrets makes most people feel special and feel as if they have some bond with others who possess the secret. That seems to be a very silly reason to keep religious ritual and information secret. Having secrets also gives those in charge of a group more control over the members of that group. The leaders of many Wiccan groups with oathbound secrets also seem to be very interested in controlling their members in general. I hear of many more oathbound groups trying to control who their members work with, play with, and/or even sleep with outside the group than I do of groups without oathbound material.
3) Wiccan material is dangerous in unprepared hands.
My Response: Performing rituals of worship without proper training is dangerous? We are taking about worshipping the Lord and Lady here, aren't we? Not some demon from one of the Keys of Solomon? I'm sorry, I can't buy into this "it's dangerous" line. The Lord and the Lady aren't demons out of some medieval story ready to destroy those who make the slightest mistake in a ritual.
You say the power can be abused? Surely you aren't claiming that some manic is going to be able to point to their enemies and scream "Kill!" in the middle of a ritual and the Lord and the Lady are going to run out and kill as "commanded"?
What's that? You mean that raising power is dangerous and that someone of evil intent could steal the power being raised and use it for nastiness? Hmmm, raising power for worship is not really dangerous and raising power for magick is no more dangerous than using an electrical appliance. The minimum necessary training needed for either using electrical appliances or raising magickal power can be given to most teens/adults in an hour or two. As for stealing the power raised and using it for nastiness, anyone who can do that against the will of the others in the circle already has so much knowledge of their own that adding Wiccan's oathbound information to it would not noticeably increase their power.
4) Some rituals, like initiations, need to be kept secret or they will not have the proper effect on the participants.
My Response: In my opinion, any ritual that depends on surprise for its effect is a very poorly designed ritual. However, there is a less theoretical problem with this position, especially where Wiccan initiations are concerned. Most Wiccans seem to believe that the Rede requires they get informed consent to perform a ritual for or on anyone, even for something as simple and harmless as a healing spell. Given the profound changes initiation can set in motion in a person, how can anyone give informed consent if they do not know exactly what is going to happen in an initiation ritual? For that matter, why would any sane person who truly understands the power of an initiation ritual agree to undergo one that they have not at least read though?
5) My coven uses a private set of names for the deities, lords of the quarters, etc. These names appear throughout our rituals, so while our rituals aren't really a secret, we have to keep all of our rituals and practices oathbound to protect the secret names we use.
My Response: While there is certainly nothing wrong with using a secret set of names for the deities, guardians, etc., having secret names is really an extremely poor excuse for keeping everything oathbound. Rituals should be recorded with generic names (e.g. "the Lady," "Guardian of the East," etc.), not with the secret names. Group members should just substitute the secret names when they perform the rituals. This would not only end the need to keep all of the rituals and practices of the group oathbound, it would enhance the sercuity of the group's secret names as they would no longer be written down in every copy of each of the group's rituals.
My advice to individuals is simple: avoid oathbound groups. Other than the keeping secret the names of a group's members, the secret names of the group's deities (if any) and perhaps the group's current, active magickal workings, I see no truly justifiable need for secrecy in Wicca today. Many oathbound groups hint at having great knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere to bestow on those who join. A few groups might actually have such a store of truly hidden knowledge. However, given everything that has become known and been published over the years, I really doubt many do. If you are tempted to join an oathbound group, carefully evaluate their reasons for secrecy in light of this article and your own common sense before you take any oath. You probably will also want to carefully check to be sure the group isn't hiding massive control of their members' lives as well as their rituals behind the cloak of oathbound secrecy. Most probably are not, of course, but you definitely want to find out before you join.
My advice to oathbound groups is less direct, and more complex. I believe you need to carefully evaluate your practices to see if your secrecy is still really necessary. If you determine that the secrecy really can no longer be justified, you need to abolish it. In most cases this can be done without breaking current members' oaths of secrecy by simply not requiring those oaths of new members. There are, of course, more direct ways to end an oath that no longer serves any purpose. Anyone leading an oathbound group should be able to figure out how to do so within their ritual framework once they decide that it should be done.
(Copyright 1998 Randall Sapphire)