Why do witches have all that ritual paraphernalia? Do they really believe in magic wands? What do they do with their daggers? Why do they wear robes? And, like the Scotsman, do they wear anything underneath?
First, not all witches wear robes. Some attend rituals in regular clothes, and a few traditional groups do circle in the nude (skyclad). The idea of robes (or nothing-at-all) is to put aside your everyday roles and commune with the deities as your real self. In most of your activities you dress the part you wear different clothes to work than at a rock concert than for dinner with the in-laws. And even in those socially-determined situations you dress a bit individually to express your personality. In the circle we put all that aside and come as our basic selves, stressing that which we have in common. In circle we want to meld, at least a little, and experience community a sense of oneness with each other and with the divine.
That said, a lot of witches use robes as a means of flaunting their individuality. Even so, meeting for ritual and wearing special clothes for the occasion gives us a sense of togetherness.
Robes don't have to be the classical basic black. It depends on the group. Black is for nighttime and mystery. But some people wear green for creativity or red for energy or polka-dot because they feel like it.
Witches technically are supposed to be naked under their robes, just like the Scotsman. Sometimes this is observed and sometimes not, depending on the group (and the weather!) Bare feet are popular but not always required. In addition, witches usually wear a braided belt, symbolic of being bound to the gods. Most people, both men and women, usually wear a necklace, either amber or something personally significant.
In addition, the well-dressed witch has a full complement of ritual tools. These are not actually used for practical purposes, except perhaps the cup, but are stand-ins for clusters of associated ideas. The famous magic wand is associated with the direction east, the element air and with the mind. The notorious witch's knife ("athamé", pronounced ath-ah-may), which is never used to cut anything, is linked with the south, with fire and with will. (In some traditions the knife and wand are transposed.) The cup represents emotion/water/west, and the pentacle, usually a metal disc with a pentagram (star) engraved on it, symbolizes action or manifestation/earth/north. These tools are concrete symbols for the qualities they are associated with and, for most witches, do not possess any real power of their own. But they are still powerful, inasmuch as they evoke their associations when used. For instance, when witches go around the circle with the knife to mark the ritual circle, they are conscious of this as an act of will. And a group are reminded of their communal love by sharing wine (or water) from a ritual cup, or of their common substance when served bread on the pentacle.
That brings us to the altar. Which is usually a small table at the centre or north/centre of the circle. On it are at least two candles, one for the Goddess and one for the God, and probably a third one for primal fire. Also there would be the pentacle and wand and an incense burner (to produce sweet air). Thus all four elements are represented, and spirit (the deities) as well. Theres likely also a bell, which is rung at certain points in the ritual (for instance, to indicate that the circle has been cast, the directions have been greeted, and everything is ready for the work of the occasion to begin). The book would be the Book of Shadows, called that because its supposed to be kept in the shadows, i.e., secret but the traditional version has been published by a number of authors, such as Janet and Stewart Farrar, and is available in any bookstore. It contains the seasonal rituals, from which material may be read.
None of these things is crucial, and wonderful rituals have been conducted in bare rooms with no ritual objects at all. However, robes, tools, altar all the trappings are useful in setting a mood and getting people into the appropriate state of mind.
Witches also tend to accumulate stones, sticks, feathers, acorns, bones, crystals, seashells and other natural objects, as well as jewelry, pictures, statues, etc., which are additional links with nature and the deities.
No discussion of the witchs paraphernalia would be complete without mentioning the cauldron and the broom.
A real cauldron is sometimes used outdoors suspended over a fire. Rather than a concoction of wing-of-bat and eye-of-newt, it more likely contains herb tea or mulled wine. Indoors we often use a small metal container set in the middle of the circle with a candle in it. This represents the cauldron of rebirth, i.e., transformation such as we experience on an on-going basis in our lives, not to mention the Big Transformation at the end of life.
The broom is sometimes a regular model, capable of actual use, and sometimes its an old-fashioned besom, which is a bundle of twigs tied to a stick. This is used for literally sweeping the circle at the beginning of ritual, not to get rid of dust but to clear the space of vibes.
Riding a broomstick, the familiar vision of a witch, is not something people do in circle. That picture comes from ancient fertility rites of riding a hobby-horse or, in a pinch, a broom through the fields, stomping and jumping to wake up the earth in spring and bid it put forth its greenery, particularly the crops people depended upon.
See also the Information Sheet on ritual.
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