My early training as a Wiccan was fairly typical once I got to college. After two years of solitude, stuck in a small town before the Internet, I found a whole new world in Austin and soon started a series of classes with a group that sounded reputable and had an eclectic curriculum. The main advantage of the group was that it was made up primarily of solitaries, and once initiated students could go off and do their own thing, join other groups, and so forth, or continue up the degree ladder. I liked the structure-without-structure. I stayed with them for several years but eventually personal differences with the leadership drove me out.
At the time it was a negative experience, as an unfortunately large percentage of Pagan group experiences are, but I'm grateful to that organization for several reasons, most significantly that through them I met some of the most important people in my life. It was worth all the drama just for S1ren, quite possibly the most amazing woman I know. I also might never otherwise have met Amber, fellow writer, early teaching partner, and all around cool chica.
I also came away with a much firmer idea of what I wanted to give my future students and what I believed Wicca really was. My brand of spirituality was fundamentally different from what I had seen in class, and I was glad to have learned that it's all right to be a black sheep even among other black sheep.
More of a red sheep, really. Or possibly paisley.
One of the traditions I started with that group, which I continue to this day, is the creation of a cingulum. "Cingulum" is a mysticofancy word for "belt." In the group, each time you initiated to a new level, you made a new cingulum--a braided cord worn around the waist in ritual that served as a sort of badge of office within the ranks. Second-degrees' cords were all red, and thirds' were all black, but beyond that they could be of pretty much whatever color and allowed for a lot of individual expression. There were certain knots that had to be tied (I never was really clear on the symbolism of them, and didn't bother keeping that part of it up in later years) and the cord started out a certain length: three separate braids of three strands of satin rattail cord, starting at three yards each. (That's 27 yards of cord. Luckily rattail is extremely inexpensive and the whole shebang set me back maybe ten dollars.) I was always a little too round for three yards to hang comfortably, so I padded mine with an extra foot here and there.
I made it as far as the second degree in their tradition, so my blue/silver/violet cord was replaced with an all-red cord for a while. After leaving the group, I felt the need to break any bonds that kept me tied to them (it's good karmic housekeeping both for you and the group you're leaving), so I destroyed the red cord and created one in shades of green and gold.
Since then, each time I go through a major life transition I create a new cord. Usually I keep one braid from the previous cingulum and replace the other two, as a way of carrying with me the knowledge and experience I've gained. I think I've had a half-dozen total in my 14 years as a Wiccan. Most recently I took the cingulum I'd made when Grove of Starlight incorporated as a coven and unwove it, keeping a black strand, and adding red.
Typically each braid has its own symbolism: God, Goddess, and self; Water, Fire, and Deity; Past, Present, and Future; I suppose you could use Maiden, Mother, and Crone if you're into the Triple Goddess concept, or whatever suits your own path.
In recent years I've also gotten into the habit of hanging charms, bells, and pendants from my cord, each with its own meaning and its own story. I have a spider charm, a dancing woman, a stone carved with a stag, a pentacle.
What is the purpose of a cingulum, besides decoration? Think of it as a long-term spell, setting your intention for the kind of experiences you want to have in ritual for however long you wear it. Each color symbolizes an aspect of your practice (or self) to strengthen, to invoke. As you weave the cord you weave possibility and Mystery into your life. As with any ritual wear, the minute you tie the cord around your waist, you allow yourself to be seduced farther into the mindspace where miracles can happen. You can perform ritual in anything, or nothing at all, of course, but the more layers of meaning you paint onto the canvas of your Circle, the deeper and more evocative the final work of art. The cord represents you, both as you are as you step into the Circle and as you intend to be once you leave it.
I always create my cords in sacred space (although the first one I made while watching Titanic on video, which may have had something to do with how the whole situation turned out) and then ritually bless and consecrate them the way I would any other tool. When not in use--and since I don't dress up for ritual all that often mine doesn't get to come out and play as often as I'd like--I keep it in a basket next to my altar that holds my divinatory toys, but I've also known people who kept theirs on the altar itself, coiled around a Goddess statue perhaps, or draped from end to end.
I have endeavored to pass this tradition on to my students; during Initiation their cords are tied around them to officially mark their passage from dedicant to full-fledged Wiccan.
As you can imagine, I have come to a place along my path where I think it's about time for a new cingulum. I no longer feel like the person I was back in October--whatever that means. I have not yet come through the other side, but then, initiation is all about the process of transformation. The end result is...well, there is no end, there's just life. It rises and falls and it goes around in endless spirals, each turn taking us back past roads we have already walked but from a different (hopefully wiser) perspective.
I no longer feel like the black-and-red Witch of last Fall. I recently purchased lengths of cord in a wine-red, hunter green, and of course black; I like the effect of the three together. The question I find myself asking is, do I really want to carry over a strand of the old cord this time? Once before, I burned my entire cingulum and released the weight of that period of my life to the flames. I feel the need to do so again. I have carried too much of my past around for too long, and it still bends me beneath it. Symbolically at least, I think it's time for a whole new beginning. I plan to sit with the materials and meditate on the process before making any final decisions--what do these colors really mean to me? What is it I want to weave into my life?
Such a monumental task to give over to such a small thing. But then, that's the essence of magic, isn't it? Investing our power into the microcosm to affect change in the macrocosm. Creating ripples from a single stone, avalanches from a single snowflake. Changing the world from the inside out...starting with three colors of satin rattail and the boundless potential of a New Moon.