The great difference between hereditary groups and others, is that, like an inherited title, the hereditary group is entirely a family affair - you were - and are - born into it. The family used to be very extended, being rather a clan or tribe. There were two ways in which outsiders could come in - by marriage or by blood brotherhood. This last means that any man who had fought on the same side as a member of the clan and been accepted as a blood brother, would be accepted into the clan.
The first thing one learns about it today are the stories of the exploits the of the ancestors, and particularly of the First Father and the First Mother. These parents of the clan are in fact the God and Goddess, however much they may be hidden under legend and fairy story. They are referred to as the Lord and Lady. The Lord was not only a great warrior, but was also identified with an animal or bird, and often known by the name or creature. It was therefore the totem of the clan and considered lucky to it, even today. The Lady was the Goddess in all Her aspects.
During the last century there were, among the Celtic families particularly, several revivals, some of which have kept going, and of late, some members of the old families have started keeping the Festivals again. There are one or two families that claim an unbroken tradition in which the Old Religion and the keeping of the Festivals has never ceased. Some have the tradition of their beliefs going right back to the Druids, and cherish certain of their prophesies, such as, "A light from the East shall come to you from the West. Cherish that light." So that when the eastern Christianity came to Britain from Ireland, it was accepted. They recognised it as their own faith. There was the Father, who was also the Son, and the Mother who yet remained ever virgin, and the two religions ran together with no difficulty in the eyes of those of the Old Religion. That is probably why the Old Faith was left alone and did not disappear among the 'hereditary' families.
The hereditary groups do not use the word 'witch' nor the word 'Craft'. A craft was a skill, as in the craft guilds; goldsmiths, leather workers, masons and the like. In these the learner served as an apprentice and went through varying degrees to journeyman, and finally to Master of his Craft. The one guild that became open to men who were not actually in the Mystery of the Craft was the Guild of the Masons and these retained the degrees through which the actual learner-masons would have to go. When there was a 'witchcraft' revival, much of the material was based on the Masonic rituals, and one thing taken over was the degrees. The hereditary groups who already had their Festival rituals do not have degrees, and their rites, though celebrating the same yearly festivals, are not like the rites of other groups.
The working is not done in a closed circle, but in a 'castle', which is 'raised'; this has four entrances, one at each point of the compass, so there is no difficulty about leaving the working area, as the doors can be opened and the bridges dropped at any one of them. This is also done at Samhain, when all those who have been, are and will be of the family, are invited to come to the yearly Great assembly.
Those who do join the family from outside are adopted into the family by a process of rebirth as the child of the Lady, the first mother, through her representative, the present female head of the clan. This headship did and does not go by birth like a kingship, but is someone chosen as being appropriate, and she may be succeeded by a daughter or by any other woman considered suitable. The Lord is not necessarily her consort, although he does represent the first Father as he has often been as close relative such as her brother or uncle, or even her father. Some Lords and Ladies remain in office into old age; others give up to the one they have been training to take over much earlier on. There is normally a group of elders, an inner circle who meet to determine how things should go, but all assemblies are public, and all are encouraged to speak at them.
Most hereditary groups have stories of treasures that have belonged to them in the past. I will mention two, to explain what sort of things they actually were. Nearly all of them are a bit of a cheat, as they are themselves 'riddles' which these groups were very given to. Many said that they posessed a round table, and that this table had the property that, however many sat around it to confer, it could accommodate any number. This means that they sat in a ring out of doors, and the ring could be made bigger however many turned up! Then there is the magic cauldron that restored the dead to life - only that those restored could not speak. This is quite true - they did have a cauldron in which the women who went with the warbands made in readiness, a certain broth "that was sovereign for all wounds". In fact, the numbers who would normally have died did not, because of something the women knew how to prepare and use on wounds. As to not speaking, it only meant that those healed had given their word not to tell anything of their treatment, or the family posessing the 'magic cauldron' would have lost their supremacy over other war bands!
Apart from these differences, the work and worship of these hereditary families of the Old Religion are much like those of any group. There is the keeping of the Festivals and the working of magic for various intents and healing. Probably because of the Lord and Lady not necessarily being consorts, there are not the sexual undertones that there are in other branches of the Craft - that does not mean that the sexual functions of the God and Goddess were ignored, but rather that they were so much taken for granted that they needed no help other than the normal practice among the clan.
These days hereditary groups do admit outsiders if they are considered suitable. In this case, those admitted completely into the family are adopted into the clan by an adoptive rebirth ritual, as in the old days, while others will be admitted only into the outer circle of the group.
One thing that makes the hereditary group different from others - at least in the ones which I know - is that no oath is ever required of any member. This is because no one whose word could be doubted would be considered fit to belong to the family. As they say,"Take no oaths; do you not speak the truth?"
The article was written by Gwenfran Gwernan as a series in the magazine 'Quest', and subsequently appeared in the booklet 'Introduction to Witchcraft', published by Quest, at BCM-SCL QUEST, London WC1N 3XX .