This entry may become a bit controversial, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for awhile. I was hoping to make it coherent, but I’m not sure it will be. Because things don’t want to seem to fall into any “perfect order” in my mind, I decided to just dump out the stream of my thoughts without any particular order. So if you’ve read me in the past and find that this doesn’t have my usual well-structured eloquence, please forgive me. But hopefully, it’ll still have some valuable reflections in it somewhere.
Traditionally, the rites of Wicca have required ritual nudity. And I think that this is a good thing. In fact, I think that these rites should involve ritual nudity. It seems to me that it’s a central component to the practice of this particular form of witchcraft. In fact, I often find it odd that (Neo-)Wiccans often will dogmatically cling to the words “harm none” in the Wiccan Rede (something which by its very name suggest it’s merely advice) and yet completely ignore or discount the phrase “ye shall be naked in your rites” which occurs in the Charge of the Goddess (which by its very names suggests that it’s a direct command). It’s one of those strange oddities in Neo-Wicca that convinces me that it (1) has completely divorced itself from the true Wicca it tries to masquerade itself as and (2) has become an “anything goes religion.”
Of course, ritual nudity in Neo-Wicca doesn’t really make sense, I suppose. After all, Neo-Wicca is too “open.” It wants to have public rites. It wants to be able to invite practically any random person into its celebrations. Because of this, the level of trust and intimacy that is required to make mandatory ritual nudity safe is simply not present. One cannot foster the safety that such vulnerability requires. As such, it’s understandable why Neo-Wicca wishes to distance itself from ritual nudity.
However, in Wicca, ritual nudity still makes sense. After all, in Wicca, the rites are not open. Random strangers cannot be invited to the celebrations. Heck, not even friends of those participants in the rites are welcome. But because Wicca is an oathbound, initiatory (and initiates-only) religion, it fosters an atmosphere that makes ritual nudity both possible and wholly appropriate.
If you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. In Wicca, one joins an established coven. Membership is not guaranteed, and the seeker must approach the leader and members of the coven to seek initiation. Initiation is not an immediate process, and the seeker spends time with the leaders and members of said coven. There is a (usually extensive) period of relationship-building that takes place prior to any group magical work. It is during this time that both the seeker and the current members of the coven get to know one another and decide if there’s a “good fit” here. It is only once it is determined that the “good fit” exists — which includes the simple questions of whether everyone can trust each other and feel comfortable working with each other — that the person is initiated into the coven and participates in the rites. (I’m ignoring the practice of filtering seekers through an “Outer Court” for the time being for simplicity, but the idea still applies to this as well.)
Because of the lengthy time between seeker introduction and ritual participation, there is plenty of time for trust to be built up to the point that everyone can become comfortable with being naked around each other during the rites. Certainly, there may still be some discomfort with the actual nudity at first, but there’s a level of trust there that enables those all involved to work past those fears and step out into the realm of vulnerability. As time goes by, the closed nature of the group and the level of closeness and trust that’s built up allows for the kind of safety that is required for proper and effective ritual nudity.
Gardner describes this in one of his books — “The Meaning of Witchcraft,” I believe — indirectly. At one point, he is discussing ritual nudity and mentions an amusing conversation he had with a Witch in his coven. He mentioned his own membership in a nudist club, when a witch commented that she could never get naked in front of other people. When Gardner pointed out that she did exactly that at every ritual they held, she simply explained, “That’s different. That’s family!” This underscores the very nature of the relationship-building process that I’m talking about. Indeed, I’d propose that another question for determining “good fit” between a seeker and coven is the simple question of “Are we all comfortable enough with each other to be naked?” And to be honest, from what I’m coming to realize about Wiccan magic, I’m not sure I’d want to work magic with a group of people who couldn’t answer that question yes, anyway.
Of course, a lot of people are probably screaming that it doesn’t make any difference whether your naked or clothed during ritual. I actually disagree with them, and I will give my personal best argument for that shortly. But first, I need to put my answer into context. I do not currently practice Wicca. I am not an initiate. However, I am currently seeking a coven and hope to become an initiate in the future. As such, I have given a lot of thought to this very issue in my own life. I have often thought about the fact that if I am to respond to what I believe is the call of my heart, I will have to participate in a coven that performs their rites nude. And I’ll be honest, the idea scares the crap out of me. I’m very self-conscious about my naked body. I have a hard time with the idea of letting my lover see me naked. So the idea of joining a small group of people and letting all of them see me naked scares the living crap out of me.
Surprisingly, that’s the exact reason I think ritual nudity does make a difference. The fact that the whole idea scares me and some part of me wants to resist the idea tells me its significance. If nothing else, there are psychological implications to consider when it comes to ritual nudity.
I think too often, we tend to forget about how our state of mind and psychological makeup takes a part in ritual and magic. How our minds work and how they react to situations has a deep effect on the effectiveness and “flavor” of our magic and the results of our ritual. Overcoming my fear, giving into (earned) trust, and disrobing in front of others to work magic with them has a definite psychological effect on my mind, and it seems quite obvious that such an effect on my state of mind during ritual will have an effect on the ritual and the resulting magic. Indeed, it’s people’s reactions (usually negative) to the suggestion of ritual nudity that belies their own claims that “it doesn’t matter.”
I have tested this in my own personal practice. I have done meditations, performed rituals, and practiced magic both clothed and naked. And I can say for certain that there is a marked difference in one’s state of mind at the time as well as the “feel” of the work at hand. And I would encourage anyone to experiment to this in their private work to see for themselves.