Lineage. We all have it. It’s what links us to our ancestors. It’s what predisposes us to things like celiac disease and alcoholism and being hilarious (if you’re Irish enough). Genetic lineage is passed in the womb. Paternal lineage was traditionally passed when you’re born in wedlock. One’s lineage says, to a degree, who they are, and also implies what they were exposed to, how they may have been raised, and what they are likely to inherit.
Wiccan lineage is similar to filial lineage in many ways. While being made a Gardnerian doesn’t expose you to any specific disease other than the very American High Priestess disease, what it does do is ensure that you went through our initiation rite and were exposed to very specific parts of our tradition, introduced to our Gods and spirits as one of us, and basically brought into our tribe by us. The same can be said about Alexandrians and other British Traditional Wicca, though really Alexandrians are just another line of Gardnerians who decided to use more incense and we all know it. Egyptian libraries. Please.
In Wicca, lineage is passed through the initiation and elevation rites. Lineage specifies that one was brought into the Wicca in a ritual in which all of the hallmarks, or core, of our liturgy were present, and that it was performed by someone who was empowered to initiate (not just some random IRAB HPS or a rogue first degree). Accordingly, most Gardnerians in America trace their lineage through Ray Buckland, to his HPS, Monique Wilson, to her HP, Gerald Gardner, and from him to the New Forest coven which brought Gerald into the Wica and gave us what many of us consider to be our core.
Why then, do we run into other witches and pagans online and in person who claim to have lineage going back to Gerald Gardner, but are obviously not Gardnerian or any other kind of traditional Wica? When Silver Ravenwolf supposedly made this claim many years ago (*turns out it was never her, just the people around her. She never corrected them, and good for her), it seemed an honest thing. What non-initiates know of Wiccan lineage is like what they know of filial lineage, or that part of the Bible that’s a bazillion pages of Levi begat Joseph who begat Joshua who begat seventy other people who all eventually lead to Jesus’s step dad, because that was important for some reason: oh yeah, paternal lineage and inheritance rights and validity. Lineage has, for time immemorial, been tied together with the concept of legitimacy. A bastard child was not legitimate and could not inherit, unless his father claimed him and gave him his lineage, despite the political and social fallout. It would seem that errant claims of lineage made in the greater neo-pagan community may still bear the trappings of a need for validity.
Claims by eclectics and members of eclectic traditions (a slightly oxymoronic term, for sure) to have lineage going back to Gerald Gardner show a shallow understanding of lineage. Wiccan lineage isn’t just “Gerald initiated Monique who initiated Ray who initiated me into the Masons, and so therefore I am a mason and also a Gardnerian with lineage going back to Gardner.” It doesn’t work that way. In order for lineage to be passed within Wicca, one needs to do certain things to pass it, and those things are contained in the traditional rites of initiation. Initiation and elevation within Wicca places a spiritual marker on a witch. It flags them as one of us, and as a result, certain deities, spirits, and other beings will take heed when they call, will help them, aid them, protect them, maybe even smite their enemies if approached in some fabulously biblical manner. If an actual, lineage member of the Wica were to toss out the initiation rites, or replace them with something different, then traditional Wiccan lineage is not conferred. Or, if one would like to persist that something is passed, then one must also concede that it is not the same. It is different.
Gerald Gardner’s initiation rites contain certain things. Let’s call them A, B and Nudity™. When I was initiated, I was given/shown/revealed A, B, and Nudity™, by people who experienced the same from people leading in a chain of individuals putting others through the same rite, in the same way (coughcoughnaked™coughcough). When Ray Buckland initiated the woman next in line from him to me, he did it with the Gardnerian rites, passing Gardnerian lineage.
At some point in time, Ray Buckland decided to branch out, and created Seax Wicca. He created this. He didn’t come across a secret, Saxon coven of witches that had been clandestinely hiding out in the wilds of Long Island in the 1960s. He was a fan of Saxon culture and religion and magic, and he made a workable religio-magical system out of it. He likely wrote initiation rites for it. This is all well and good. But what people don’t understand is that those rites aren’t the rites of entrance into traditional Wicca. When Mr. Buckland was initiated by Monique Wilson, he swore an oath that we all take to basically not reveal information which is bound by that oath. This covers things like the Names of the Wiccan Gods to the identities of other witches, to what is found in our BoS and a bunch of other lore both written and oral. Because he could not pass this on to outsiders, and because anyone being brought into Seax Wicca was still technically an outsider from the traditional oath and practice of Wicca, those new initiation rites did not convey Wiccan lineage going back to Gerald Gardner, because they did not contain the Gardnerian oathbound information and practices. I am not saying that they weren’t equally wonderful and powerful and moving and fulfilling rites or that Seax Wicca is bogus. I am only outlining that it is different, and different is not less-than.
But in recognizing that it is different, one must be willing to admit that because Ray was the creator of that tradition, its lineage started with him. A Gardnerian priest putting a woman through a Co-Masons initiation rite does not make her a Gardnerian any more than a Jewish PhD conferring an engineering PhD on a student makes that student Jewish. The same goes for different traditions of Wicca, as we know them today. A Seax Wicca HP does not pass Gardnerian lineage by initiating someone into Seax Wicca, because even if that person was also a Gardnerian, the initiations are different. You learn different things. You don’t get passed the Gardnerian info or mojo.
Yet, even today, we have people online who claim that their lineage goes back to Gardner through Michael Reagan to Ray Buckland (possibly even through same-sex initiation, which is a big Gardnerian no-no) back up the line to Gardner. Why? Why is it so important to have lineage to the man who brought Wicca out of the broom closet, instead of to someone two links down the chain from him who created another system of witchcraft? Gerald was not the first witch, nor will he be the last, but his name does seem to be one that people cling to, for many reasons.
If your line of initiators goes back a good way, great. If it goes back through multiple varying and different eclectic traditions, wonderful. But the lineage passed to you, if any, would start with your tradition’s founder, not the founder of their previous tradition, or the founder of that person’s previous tradition. Lineage is, after all, a way to identify someone, to have an understanding of who they are and what they do and where they got it from. If you slap that term onto anyone who’s ever high-fived you or walked slowly enough across your lawn, then the term becomes meaningless, and anyone on earth can claim lineage back to anyone if they have only the most flimsy and tangential association with them. The Correllian Nativist tradition does not, from what I understand, convey any actual native American lineage on its members. In the same vein, traditional Wiccan lineage is passed intentionally, and not outside of the realm of itself. If you’re from an eclectic tradition, take pride in it. Don’t attempt to grasp for some unnecessary sense of further legitimacy by reaching out for something that isn’t there.
Or, if you feel that you really need it, then come and get it. It’s still being passed today, around the world, and when a seeker is ready, a teacher can appear.