The Witches’ Creed (by Doreen Valiente) Explained

Hear now the words of the Witches,
The secrets we hid in the night,
When dark was our destiny’s pathway,
That now we bring forth into light.

She’s telling you to listen to her poem about witches and the ways of witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, and this poem was probably written within a few years of that event, so she’s saying the secrets of the witches don’t have to remain secret anymore–she can tell the world.

Mysterious water and fire,
The Earth and the wide-ranging air,
By hidden quintessence we know them,
And will and keep silent and dare.

This stanza is about the elements and the magician’s pyramid. Water, fire, earth, and air are the four classical elements. The quintessence (also called aether in Hermeticism, or spirit in modern Wicca) is the fifth element. The magician’s pyramid consists of four parts: to Know, to Will, to Dare, and to Keep Silent. They are also each associated with an element.

The birth and rebirth of all nature,
The passing of winter and spring,
We share with the life universal,
Rejoice in the magical ring.

The earth cycles through the same seasons, which affect all life on earth. The magical ring may be the Wheel of the Year, or it could also refer to the ring or circle that practitioners stand in during ritual.

Four times in the year the Great Sabbat
Returns, and the witches are seen
At Lammas and Candlemas dancing,
On May Eve and old Hallowe’en.

This stanza is about the four Greater Sabbats: Candlemas, May Eve/Day, Lammas, and Halloween. Their popular names today are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. These are the holidays that fall halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, also called cross-quarter days.

When day-time and night-time are equal,
When sun is at greatest and least,
The four Lesser Sabbats are summoned,
Again witches gather in feast.

When day and night are equal, this is an equinox. The longest and shortest days of the year are the solstices (referring to the amount of sunlight, not the amount of hours, since obviously all days are the same length hour-wise). These are called the Lesser Sabbats.

Thirteen silver moons in a year are,
Thirteen is the covens array.
Thirteen times as Esbat make merry,
For each golden year and a day.

There are thirteen full moons every year. The full moon is when esbats are traditionally held. It is believed that there were traditionally thirteen witches in a coven. The third line is probably in reference to libations carried out during cakes and wine. She’s basically saying thirteen is a sacred number to witches.

The power was passed down the ages,
Each time between woman and man,
Each century unto the other,
Ere time and the ages began.

In Gardnerian Wicca, men must initiate women, and women initiate men. When this poem was written, it was believed that Gardner’s version of witchcraft was the successor of an ancient religion that began at the dawn of humankind.

When drawn is the magical circle,
By sword or athame or power,
Its compass between the two worlds lies,
In Land of the Shades for that hour.

The circle is cast by drawing the sword across the ground or by pointing the athame toward the ground. When the casting has been completed, the space within that circle is considered a space without a place or time. It lies between the world of mortals and the spirit realm. “Compass” may refer to the fact that the cardinal directions are necessary to call the quarters.

The world has no right then to know it,
And world of beyond will tell naught,
The oldest of Gods are invoked there,
The Great Work of magic is wrought.

The mortal world doesn’t deserve to know about this magic (or I guess the world of non-witches). The spirit world will never tell. This is where witches do all their work and invoke their Gods, who were presumed to be the Gods which existed since the dawn of humankind.

For two are the mystical pillars,
That stand at the gate of the shrine,
And two are the powers of nature,
The forms and the forces divine.

The two pillars are Joachim and Boaz, or Mercy and Severity. They represent two polarities, masculine and feminine, light and dark. You can see them in the tarot card for the High Priestess. They are at the front of her shrine. This is something that has been part of Western occultism for centuries and I encourage you to research more about it.

The dark and the light in succession,
The opposites each unto each,
Shown forth as a God and a Goddess,
Of this did our ancestors teach.

She’s just elaborating on the last stanza, and explaining that these forces make up the Goddess and the God of Wicca. Again, this was written during a time when they believed to be practicing an ancient witchcraft religion, hence the “ancestors” part.

By night he’s the wild wind’s rider,
The Horn’d One, the Lord of the Shades.
By day he’s the King of the Woodland,
The dweller in green forest glades.

This stanza is about the God in his many forms.

She is youthful or old as she pleases,
She sails the torn clouds in her barque,
The bright silver lady of midnight,
The crone who weaves spells in the dark.

This is about the Triple Goddess in her forms.

The master and mistress of magic,
They dwell in the deeps of the mind,
Immortal and ever-renewing,
With power to free or to bind.

Jugding by other works of hers, she believed all Gods and Goddesses to be aspects of one God/Goddess. This stanza seems to say that they are archetypes that exist within the collective human mind. This isn’t to say that they are merely imaginary friends; the mind is a powerful tool that can alter how you experience life, or alter what manifests within it.

So drink the good wine to the Old Gods,
And dance and make love in their praise,
Til Elphame’s fair land shall receive us
In peace at the end of our days.

Cakes and wine are a part of every traditional ritual, to be had in honor of the Gods. Then she is just saying to enjoy yourself, because that’s what the Gods want for us. Elphame is a fairyland, home to elves or fairies. Witches were often associated with fairies in early folklore.

An Do What You Will be the challenge,
So be it in Love that harms none,
For this is our only commandment,
By Magic of old, be it done!

She’s either paraphrasing the Rede, An it harm none, do what ye will, or she’s paraphrasing Aleister Crowley: Do what thou wilt be the whole of the Law.

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