Coming to the Edge of the Circle is an ethnographic study of the initiation ritual practiced by a coven of Witches located in Ohio, written by Nikki Bado-Fralick Her analysis of this coven's initiation ceremony indicates that instead of a single linear event, initiation is deeply embedded within an overarching learning process that engages the body as an active learner and doer of religious ritual. Bado-Fralick asks: is Arnold Van Gennep’s tripartite template of initiation, which has been the basis of anthropologist and folklorists conceptualization of initiation for a hundred years, accurate or sufficient? In answering this question the author gives a lively and engaging description of her own route to becoming a Witch, raises issues of practitioner vs. non-practitioner studies of religion, and provides a sense of how Witches practice their religion. Bado-Fralick has a background in folklore, performance studies, philosophy, ritual studies, and feminism, all of which inform her analysis of her own initiation as a Witch thirty years ago and her initiation of others in her role as a high priestess of the coven Merry Circle.
The author takes us on a personal journey, starting with a discussion of her own dedication ritual—the ritual that signifies an individual’s desire to join a coven and begin the process of training to be Witch—her subsequent initiation, which typically takes place a year and a day after dedication but may be longer, to her becoming a high priestess who initiates others. Unlike other personal accounts (Phyllis Curott's three books spring to mind) Bado-Fralick explores the details of these rituals, their meaning to the individual, and their implication for understanding the larger question of the initiation process.
While some might contend that an attempt to test these paradigms against one’s own lived experience is ill-advised, I believe that Bado-Fralick succeeds because she is unwilling to sacrifice either her integrity as a religious practitioner or her standards as a scholar, unlike Luhrmann's deeply disappointing Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. The author approaches her subject through detailed discussions of her own coven’s rituals of dedication and initiation, which are covered in the book’s three middle chapters and which form, as it were, its auto-ethnographic heart. Intertwined with this, she includes well-crafted introductions to the history of Wicca and Witchcraft in general, to the basic principles, beliefs, and rituals tools of Wicca, and to the process by which one chooses (or finds) the Wiccan path.
Despite a number of written accounts, Wiccan rituals of dedication and initiation remain shrouded in an uncomfortable sense of secrecy, primarily because popular perceptions of these ritual processes are both tainted by centuries of deeply embedded cultural fears and trivialized by much of what passes for “witchcraft” or “wicca” in late modern popular culture. Using Wittgenstein’s concept of "language game" the author contends that initiation into Witchcraft must be understood not in terms of Van Gennep’s three distinct periods but as a process of learning a new discourse, one which involves both skill and practice. This process is not just about learning the rules but learning how and when to use those rules. She suggests that learning to drive a car is an apt analogy, as one first must learn the rules of the road, but learning them and how a car works does not make you a driver. Practicing over and over does, and with time one becomes a better driver. Learning to drive is not just an intellectual act but one that is learned in the body itself.
The combination of intellectual and somatic learning is particularly important for Bado-Fralick’s discussion of Wiccan initiation rituals, as Wicca is an embodied spirituality where the body is not separate from the divine but is part of it, particularly within ritual. It is through what she terms “body-in-practice” that Witches existentially transform themselves both in ritual and out of it.
The question posited was: how does Van Gennep’s template of the initiation process hold up? Bado-Fralick says that Van Gennep's model, which has changed little in nearly100 years, essentially describes rites of passage as a linear, three-part progression - separation, liminality, and reincorporation - little more than "beginning, middle, and end." She suggests not that he was completely wrong, but that his description is not something that occurs as three distinct stages. Instead, the individual moves through each stage throughout the initiation process, returning again to each stage several times.
Although the book is clearly a thesis, rewritten for a larger audience, as a first person account this is a very readable book. Occasionally it becomes a very dry academic discussion which may irritate some readers. But this reviewer feels it would make an excellent addition to an undergraduate course in Pagan Studies, Sociology of Religion, Folklore, or Introduction to Anthropology. It will also make a contribution to the growing literature on Wicca.
~review by Lisa Mc Sherry
Author: Nikki Bado-Fralick
Oxford University Press, 2005
pp. 200, $24.95