Traditional Practice vs. Eclecticism
Traditions are similar to the denominations of Christianity. Each Tradition, or Trad, has its own distinct beliefs, and those beliefs differ to some degree from the beliefs of other Traditions. Joining a Tradition generally requires a considerable amount of training provided (for free) by a coven in order to properly pass down the teachings of the specific Tradition. Membership also generally requires initiation, in which the initiate is formally welcomed into the group through a ritual death and rebirth. As such, membership is limited. While anyone can be Wiccan, not everyone can be a Gardnerian Wiccan, for example. To be a Gardnerian, one must be trained by Gardnerians and initiated into a Gardnerian coven, and Gardnerian covens are comprised entirely of those previously initiated as Gardnerians.
Within the Traditions is a subset known in the United States as British Traditional Wicca. Gardnerians and Alexandrians are two examples of British Traditional groups. These groups have strong ties between one another and include oathbound material unavailable outside of their groups. In contrast, many non-British Traditional groups were originally formed in part from information available in the public domain, whether it be from books or people speaking outside their own initiatory group. These Traditions, however, still have their own distinct practices, and they generally have material not shared outside of their Tradition.
Seax-Wicca is a notable exception to the above definition. It is recognized as a Tradition and has its own distinct beliefs and practices, but it does not require initiation for membership, nor is its information oathbound. Quite the opposite, its founder, Raymond Buckland, has published books on the subject.
Traditionalists are most often organized into covens, which is a small, tightly knit group of people who worship together. Attendance at Sabbats and Esbats is generally required precisely because of the ties formed within the coven and the emphasis upon every member having a purpose. Ideally, covens have thirteen members – six men, six women, and a high priestess – although covens recognize that this is not nearly always possible to assemble. If a coven grows larger than this, it frequently splits into multiple groups. Traditionally the new group needs to remain viable for a year and a day before it is considered a new, true coven in its own right.
Margaret Murray gave us both the term coven and the idea that they should have thirteen members, even though, by her own admission, only a single trial record actually mentions this number. In fact, the word originated around the year 1500, is a variation of the word convent, and can refer to any sort of assembly, not specifically a witch assembly.
Those of us outside of a Tradition are Eclectics. They most often learn from books, websites, and personal experience, finding particular practices that are meaningful to them and constructing their own unique forms of worship. Eclecticism is not a Tradition. There is no tradition being passed between practitioners, and two Eclectics may have nothing in common outside of their basic understandings of Wicca.
Eclecticism is most often embraced by those who have no access to covens or more formal training, although some specifically prefer Eclecticism over more structured practices. Eclecticism is not, however, in any way a shortcut. Quite the opposite, serious Eclectics frequently get frustrated because they are forced to study entirely on their own, have only themselves to depend upon, receive no positive reinforcement, and have no instructors to whom they can bring questions. As you study and form your own personal practices within Wicca, you should be basing it on careful thought and research, not the first cool-sounding idea that comes your way. Eclectic Wicca should still be about what you believe, not just what you want to believe, and it should still be true to the basic concepts of Wicca.
Eclectics are most often Solitaries, meaning simply that they work outside of a coven and generally on their own. Some books speak of “self-initiation” for Solitaries, but a more appropriate term is “dedication.” Merriam Webster defines initiation as “the rites, ceremonies, ordeals, or instructions with which one is made a member of a sect or society or is invested with a particular function or status.” It is, by definition, something conferred upon you by others. Therefore, it is appropriate within a coven but not appropriate for Solitaries, as you cannot invest yourself with a particular status. Dedication is exactly what it sounds like: your personal dedication to your gods and to the principles of Wicca.
Now, some Traditionalists will say that you have to be initiated to be a real Wiccan. Essentially, they do not include Eclectics under the definition of Wicca. Obviously, I disagree, but that’s not the point here. That’s also not to say that they think that Eclecticism is not a valid path, merely that it is not Wicca, which is their right to believe. However, the answer to this conflict is certainly not “self-initiation.” Initiation is not merely a ritual. It is an action undertaken, one that can only be done among multiple people. Walking yourself though an “initiation ceremony” does not mean that you have been initiated and will not impress a Traditionalist in any sort of way. Indeed, they generally respect Eclectics more when they do not abuse the English language by claiming self-initiation.
There are also less formal gatherings available for Wiccans. They are generally referred to as “open circles,” meaning that are all welcome regardless of any membership. There are a large number of organizations that host open circles. These are most heavily frequented by Solitaries precisely because they do not have covens within which to work. Open circles are frequently not limited to thirteen participants, which I find to be a detriment. Most people become spectators instead of participants, which I find to be counterproductive.