Those of us who identify as Faery share, among many other things, a statement of principles of conduct and affirmations about what the Tradition is, who can teach it, and how. One of those principles reads, “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.” The two clauses that make up this statement establish a balance between autonomy and accountability, where neither one trumps the other, but are seen as part of an integral ethical whole.
I’ve heard it said that, unlike some forms of modern Pagan spirituality, Faery lacks a guiding set of ethical principles. This is, of course, nonsense. To be sure, we do lack anything as pithy and quotable as the Wiccan Rede or the Ten Commandments, but I would suggest that, taken together as a unified whole, the powers and principles encapsulated in the Iron and Pearl Pentacles form the basis of a truly Faery system of ethics or moral philosophy. The trick is, of course, that they are the basis of that philosophy, not an explicit statement of that philosophy, nor a collection of instructions on how to enact it. As with so much else, one must do the work of putting it together oneself, or with the help of one’s teachers and fellow students and initiates. (That can be a pain in the ass, to be sure, but anyone who says that Faery is “easy” or “convenient” is lying to you, and shouldn’t be trusted.)
The Faery Pentacles are multifaceted, fulfilling multiple roles within the practice of Faery, and I won’t presume here to give instruction on the use of these most holy symbols, meditative tools, and complex magical sigils. I will restrain myself to mentioning that one of the points of the Pearl Pentacle—and, therefore, one of the key principles of Faery—is named sometimes as Liberty, sometimes as Power. I’m quite sure most folks interested in Faery are familiar with both concepts. I’m equally sure that most readers have an idiosyncratic and deeply nuanced definition of, and relationship with, those concepts. While I’m focussing on the point as Liberty, I want to keep us aware of its equally valid identity as Power; indeed, as mentioned later, an awareness of the relationship between Power and Liberty can usefully inform how we approach either concept.
What I mean when I use a conceptual term like “liberty” is not, and cannot be, identical to what you mean by that same term; even if we agree on the denotative meaning, our individual personalities and histories will give us connotative meanings that cannot be equated. I do think it’s reasonable, though, to start with agreed-upon denotative meanings and work from there. More than reasonable, I think it’s necessary. We need to talk about liberty, autonomy, sovereignty, and accountability: what those words mean, how they’re related, and why understanding those ideas is important, not only for Faery, but for life in general. The trouble is, these are pretty heavyweight concepts, better suited to university-level philosophy courses (or late-night pub sessions) than to necessarily-brief blog posts. Nevertheless, if we’re to have any real grasp of what Faery looks like in practice, of how to walk as a Witch in the real world of actions and choices and responsibilities, we need to understand them as well as we know the sound of our own hearts beating.
And to do that, we need to talk about Westphalia.
Westphalia is a region of Germany known for producing camper vans. It’s also known as the place where, in 1648, three treaties were signed in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück. At the time, Europe was in the midst of throwing, not one, but two wars (designated “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Eighty Years’ War” by historians) which were ravaging the populace and destabilizing the whole region. These three treaties, collectively known as the “Peace of Westphalia,” ended both of them.
They also created the modern political world in which we live, move, and have our being.
To unpack that a bit: the Peace of Westphalia established the concept of “the state” as an independent entity with total and unquestioned control over its own internal affairs, free from any external influence. In the Westphalian system, each state is equal to all others, no matter how great or small, and no state is permitted to impose its will on another merely by dint of force. This concept, referred to as “sovereignty,” became a central component of international law in Europe and, later, throughout the world.
Sovereignty is a tricksy concept. It seems quite simple on its surface: “supreme power or authority,” as the Oxford Dictionary would have it. The nuances are where it becomes interesting, and harder to nail down. Following Westphalia, the term took on a particular set of connotations: independence, freedom from coercion, absolute control over one’s own actions and interests. Sovereignty is also applied to people at times, often people wearing funny hats: emperors, kings, bishops, and the like. The meaning is quite the same: a sovereign is someone over whom no one else has power, someone who has total and final control over their own actions and lives. When speaking of a head of state, or (as some Christians do) of a Supreme Being, it carries with it the implication of control over the lives of everyone under that individual’s power, as well.
It’s a compelling idea, as you’d expect from anything that’s been the core of modern geopolitics for going on 400 years. At its best, sovereignty supplies the logical foundations for self-determination and resistance, enabling a small nation to tell to a larger nation, “No, you may not invade us and take our goods, our land, or our lives, because we are us and they are ours.” At its worst, it tacitly supports the worst atrocities the state can bring to bear on its own people, as in the U.S. massacre and genocide of Native Americans, or the Nazi genocide of German Jews.
So, a bit of a mixed bag, as it were.
Autonomy is similarly tricksy and complex. The word, from the Greek αὐτο (auto, self) + νόμος (nomos, law), literally means “self-legislating,” as in “being a law unto oneself.” In ethics, it refers to the ability of an individual to make unhindered, un-coerced choices. Like sovereignty, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Deriving in great part from the work of Immanuel Kant, autonomy specifically refers to an individual’s ability to make moral choices: to choose to act in a manner consistent with an objective or outside moral standard, regardless of any desire to the contrary, precisely because that choice is consistent with the moral standard. To be autonomous, in other words, is to have moral agency, to be able to choose to do the right thing… even if you don’t necessarily want to.
In modern parlance, autonomy has taken on some of the characteristics of sovereignty, to the point that many people equate the two. For the purposes of this essay, however, I suggest that they are quite different things: related in their approach to questions of power, coercion, and self-determination, but ultimately referring to two different categories of entity: states (to include autocephalous entities such as churches) and individual people. Simply put, only states (and heads of states, who are effectively the State personified) have sovereignty. Likewise, only people can have autonomy.
“What’s the difference,” you may well ask, “and what the hell does any of this have to do with Faery?” Valid and valuable questions, both of them.
Sovereign Westphalian states exist in relationship to one another, but as separate entities without interconnectedness; in other words, they may have foreign policies and treaties with their allies, but their internal affairs and sovereign conduct are intrinsically isolated from the opinion and coercion of other states, even their allies. This is why, for instance, the United States can criticise other countries for their shabby treatment of children or the environment, but has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Kyoto Protocol, the tossers. They’re sovereign, which means they can do as they bloody well like within their own borders, even when doing so ultimately hurts everyone else.
Autonomy, by contrast, exists in the context of an interconnected moral universe. I can choose to act or to refrain from action, to speak or to remain silent, based on my estimation of the ethical weight of the choice, which necessarily incorporates the effect of my words or actions, or of my silence or inaction, on the world around me. Autonomy requires responsibility as an intrinsic component of moral agency. In other words, there is no autonomy without accountability. Thus, whatever autonomy means, one thing it cannot mean is “license,” defined as “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, without regard for the outcomes of my actions.”
South Park references aside, I hope the relation of all this philosophical blather to Faery is beginning to come clear.
What we’re talking about when we talk about “autonomy” is not merely Liberty, but the interrelation and interconnection of Liberty with all the other points of the Pearl Pentacle, and with Power, its own other name and its corresponding point in the Iron Pentacle. Liberty is an essential core principle of a truly Faery ethic… but no greater than any of the other points. It does not trump Knowledge and Wisdom, nor Love and Law, and without them it becomes nothing more than license, which is not a magical virtue, no matter what that one pseudo-Thelemite guy at the pub meet tried to tell you, all the while staring at your ass and offering to buy you drinks. In fact, even Aleister Crowley—that noted proponent of license, impropriety, and Doing What Thou Wilt—made it quite clear in his writings that there was a bloody great difference between “doing one’s True Will” and “doing whatever the hell you want.” Faery can, and should, have at least as solid a grasp on that distinction as Crowley did.
Blessedly, we do… and characteristically, perhaps even frustratingly, it doesn’t express well as a sound-bite. If I have learnt anything at all about Faery (an open question, surely, but go with me on this), it’s that Faery is about relationships, about being in relationship: with Gods, with spirits, with our kinfolk, with our families and friends and neighbors, with the worlds around us and within us.
A central part of the work of being in relationship is being aware of how what I say and do affects those around me, and accepting responsibility for that: accountability, or as some would say, “owning it.” Sometimes, owning our words and actions means apologising and attempting to make amends. Other times, it means arguing, negotiating, or standing on our principles and refusing to budge, even in the fact of conflict with those we love. Sometimes, it’s mildly uncomfortable. Others, it’s excruciating, or joyful, or dull drudgery. In all cases, it’s about being authentically we you are, exercising moral agency, and accepting responsibility for what that means.
Accountability is the other half of autonomy, without which there can be no autonomy. Lacking accountability, the individual believes itself to be sovereign, as a state or a Supreme Being is sovereign, and inflates its own ego to the point of collapse (or prolapse, if you like). From there, everything else—magic, relationships, personality itself—follows suit. Accountability is what connects us to the world around us, what enables the very relationships that lie at the heart of Faery. To whom are we accountable? Why, to those with whom we’re in relationship: Gods, spirits, our kith and kin, the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we treat with them, we do so with the force of our very beings, and in so doing, we make ourselves accountable for what we do. This is why our oaths are sacred, why our words are imbued with power and meaning, why our actions cause change far beyond the range of our sight: because through them, we are accountable. If we are not accountable, we betray our words and actions, and the power leaks out of them as through a hole in our cup.
In the context of Faery, let’s look again at that statement from the beginning: “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.”
Viewed through the lens of autonomy and accountability, as defined above, this statement begins to unfold to us. After all, I cannot make a choice that changes the world without, y’know, changing the world. Of course, some choices are more impactful than others, and affect others’ choices to a greater degree.
Let’s say, for instance, that I decide to eat an orange. No one else may eat that orange, but that’s unlikely to cause much strife even in my home, where we lurve oranges. If there are no other oranges in the house, I can always pop out to market and pick some up. However, should I be amongst a group of friends when I decide to, say, spoil the new Star Wars film, my behaviour would get me tossed out on my ear, and rightly so. In both cases, I am accountable to those with whom I am in relationship, and to the fact that my choices affect theirs. If I eat the last orange, I merely need to pick up more oranges at market, but if I choose to spoil a movie (or book, or whatever) for someone, I’ve permanently ruined an experience for them, which is potentially an unforgivable offense. At the very least, it reveals me to be a churlish boor, and I’d have no leg to stand on if they chose not to invite me to future engagements… or to take a poke at me, for that matter.
So, then, how much more so with Faery? What if I wish to publicly reveal some shared material of the tradition considered by other initiates, folk I consider “kin,” to be oathbound? Or, if not oathbound, then “merely” sacred, to be held in confidence and secrecy? What if I should suggest to students, seekers, or other interested parties that my particular, idiosyncratic take on Faery is normative, and that Faery who practice in some other way are somehow beyond the pale? What if I decide to charge students money to be “initiated” into Faery, or to demand sexual favors from students, or to dox my fellow initiates, publishing their names and personal details for the world to see? When someone (or, more likely, several someones) comes to me with criticisms, grievances, even outright anger, how should I receive that?
Well, if we are in relationship to one another, as suggested by the term “kin,” then I am accountable to them. If it is my claim that we are part of the same tradition, I owe it to them—I am obliged—to hear their words, to consider their counsel openly and honestly, and to allow that counsel to inform the choices I make. If someone with whom I am in a relationship tells me that my choices are impeding or harming their own choices, I have a responsibility to take that seriously, to consider the possibility that I am behaving in an immoral and unethical fashion, and to modify my behaviour accordingly.
Because at the end of the day, as a wise woman once said to me, we are the choices we make and the stories we tell. The choices we make show us what kind of people we are; the stories we tell shape the choices we believe we have, and put those choices into some kind of context. If my story is that I’m wholly independent, beholden to no-one and nothing—save, perhaps, the Gods—then my choices I perceive will be limited in scope, and will tend to reinforce that worldview. If I see myself as sovereign, as hermetically isolated from other initiates, I am denying our kinship, spinning a story in which we have no relationship, and in which I’m therefore not accountable for how my choices affect theirs.
At the risk of belaboring an obvious point: that’s magic. It’s a spell… or, if you prefer, it’s a glamour, an illusion. It’s illusory, because sovereignty is a delusion. What we have, instead, is Liberty: power and agency. We have autonomy. We exist in a moral context, in relationships with others of our lineage and with the world around us. Our choices change the world, and affect the choices others can make, which makes us accountable.
At our initiation into Faery, we formally acknowledge and accept both our autonomy and our accountability, each as part and parcel of the other. However, being an initiate doesn’t grant autonomy; we have it merely by being human. As such, it shouldn’t require an oath to enforce accountability. All it should take is a basic level of consideration for others: Say “please” and “thank you.” Don’t steal somebody else’s things. Ask before you use them. Don’t spoil the movie. Share nicely, and without pouting. You know, the things we expect children to learn before they leave primary school.
After all, if we cannot be at least that accountable, if we cannot own our own words and actions, however do we expect to treat with spirits, Gods, or our own shadows?
There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not. Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.
I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides. Teaching is my day job. As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.
Knowledge is not enough
Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher. Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements. Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.
In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary. You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it. Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress. Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus. Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach. In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.
This is not about you
If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be. Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it. The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student. If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.
The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you. To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core. Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts. Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge. Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise. The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling. One is plenty; four is too much. I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Be very aware of your language. Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it. This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like. I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it. Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it. Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?” The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.
At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge. Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.
Don’t get bored
In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching: “Don’t let them bore you.”
There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun. But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels. If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing. If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft). If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else. Most of all, if you are bored you will be boring.
Different models of teaching and their uses
Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.
The classroom or workshop model
Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space. That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.
The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.
The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole. A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.
An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship. This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report. This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.
Teaching in covens
In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one. In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities. Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated. I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be. There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.
Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit. The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”
From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital. How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give? I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense. There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week. I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks. I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.
In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself. I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles. As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say. To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice. My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.
Since I caught its scent in 2000 and realised its current had been nudging on my awareness for ten years already, I’d done what I could to study, learn, connect with and generally be in the same vicinity as Feri tradition. During that time I’d strongly received the message, from Feri initiates, teachers, from dedicants of all sorts of other paths and religions, that daily spiritual practice is a Good Thing – that it is, in fact, essential. But it didn’t occur to me until half a decade ago that, as for Vizzini in The Princess Bride, that did not mean what I thought it meant.
One practice I’d been doing throughout my Feri/Faery training was making Kala, or, as the teacher who would finally initiate me names it, the Water Trick. I’d had four cups that I’d bought specifically for the purpose of making Kala. Every single one of them ended up cracked or broken, or developed a leak.
First of all there was the beautiful clay goblet with a powder blue glaze that I picked up in an Oxfam shop in Edinburgh: it fell off its shelf onto the floor and broke in two. Then there was the gorgeous, apple wood, hand-turned chalice which I’d bought in the mid-1990s in Bath: the centre fell out of the knot in its side making it no less beautiful, but utterly unusable; the cup I made myself at a pottery class and which, although properly fired and without visible cracks, holes or fissures, conspired to dribble its contents out of its base every time it was filled; and finally, the round-bellied, clay chalice with a glaze shifting from tan brown to mustard yellow, another charity shop purchase, which spontaneously developed a crack overnight, without ever moving from its spot on the altar.
As you might imagine, I became suspicious that Something Was Up. At the time of this final insult to my attempts to be a daily spiritual practitioner, I was about halfway through a two-and-a-half year training with T. Thorn Coyle. We did a lot of work with our tools, both physically and metaphysically, and the idea came up in discussion with my fellow students of the ‘cracked cup’ – the student on the spiritual path who cannot hold the benefits of their work, because they have an unhealed wound, or an unnoticed fissure somewhere in their body, physical or energetic.
This made a lot of sense to me, as I was at the time finally coming to grips with a lifetime’s untreated depression. It also made sense because I took my first steps into the occult through the Tarot. I did a lot of journeying into the cards in my teens, and returned frequently to the Ace of Cups. Again and again I experienced being the Cup, the vessel for the Holy Spirit and the water of Life to work through into the world.
From that point on, I didn’t acquire any more cups with the practice of making Kala in mind.
Over the next year daily practice became more and more difficult for me, to the point where I just about gave up, although it was always in my mind, especially once I asked my final Faery teacher to take me on as a student. After having some success with doing the exercises she suggested daily, I found myself thinking about them, but not doing them.
I said before that I didn’t acquire any more cups for making Kala: that’s true, but I did make one last attempt at having a ‘special’ vessel for the purpose – the very first piece of pottery I had ever thrown, fired and glazed, back when I was 18 and a year into my journey with the Tarot.
I had made it with the intention of pouring out libations to the elements; I had used four different glazes to represent the four elements, overlapping with each other to create eight colours. It was lumpy and uneven, some of the blended glazes had run where the chemicals in them had interacted to alter their properties under heat, and it was perfect. I had carried it with me and kept it safe for 22 years. This simple, sturdy, uneven cup I had made myself, this cup which had been with me for so long, which knew me so well, which I did not imagine for a minute could possibly succumb as the others had done – which, not long after, fell off a table and split in two.
Shortly after that, I received a waking vision:
It is sunny and there is a clear, wide, straight and even track stretching off into the distance, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at myself as I sit on the grass verge, dense woods behind me. I am unable to walk on along the path. This isn’t for lack of energy, through illness or injury, but through unwillingness. My will is not to walk the clear, wide, straight and even track in sunlight; my will is to walk into the wild woods, into the dark, the unknown, the trackless – into the arms of nature.
I had not connected the vision with the broken cup, but following conversations with my teacher and others, something shifted into place within me: all of those broken Kala cups were not because I am a ‘cracked vessel’, but because I simply do not fit within walls any longer, because my path was not one of form: I break containers.
Talking to my teacher and another initiate who is a close friend, I heard reflected back a confirmation of what I felt: that going into the wild, into the woods, into nature was what I needed; that, in my friend’s words, it was about time I stopped torturing myself trying to make myself do spiritual practice that way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, and did it my way.
Fetch-me was so mightily relieved. No more rules! No more instructions! No more boring straight path! Relaxation and fun and doing stuff that kept Fetch-me happy was the order of the day.
This included a lot of walking in the woods, sitting by the burn (a particularly Scottish kind of stream), falling asleep on stones, conversing with buzzards and swallows, cuddling dogs, making healthy food, listening to the wind, standing and singing barefoot under the full moon. After a while, it also began to include mantras to the sun, T’ai Chi for the moon, alignment, salt water baths and whatever out of my existing bag of tools and tricks took my fancy and felt right.
And it was happening every day, which made it daily practice, right?
Which points to the vitally important nugget at the heart of all this. With all of those ‘Kala cups’, with all of the following instructions, I was making the mistake of turning daily practice into something special, something cut out, something disconnected, and, as my teacher said to me, the whole point of all of this is connection.
The point of daily practice is that it is not special: it is beautiful and self-expanding and joyful and full of wonder and connecting, but it is not special.
It is, quite literally, everyday.
In the future, this blog will feature a series of essays from multiple authors, examining and expanding on the 2011 Faery statement of principles. Of these principles, “We do not charge for teaching the core of the Faery tradition” receives the most public attention, perhaps because among the principles, it is the most concrete and easy to grasp. In that way, I think this principle has overshadowed other parts of the statement that were intended to have equal or greater weight. In light of this attention, I chose to address the statement’s last principle first.
Although our opinions are diverse (with some having a more liberal and others a stricter view), many of those who embrace the statement of principles affirm that a witch can ethically charge and accept barter for a wide range of magical services. These may include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Herbal preparations
- Magical tools
- Spiritual direction or counseling sessions
- Short-term in-person teaching of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
- Writings and instructional videos of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
- Long-term teaching of herbalism, personal development, occult philosophy and history, astrology, traditional medicine, bodywork, or other knowledge that may inform but is not formally part of an initiatory Craft tradition
As a group, our commitment to offering initiatory training without monetary obligation is rooted in our own experiences of economic instability and hardship and those of our loved ones. Unlike so many of the other occult innovators of the twentieth-century, Victor and Cora Anderson were not born into economic privilege. Their young adulthood was lived during the struggles of the Depression and World War II, and both experienced the death of close loved ones during childhood. As a young married couple, they experienced profound poverty and even, at times, hunger. Although the Andersons struggled financially throughout their lives, they taught their students free of charge. Especially during the Andersons’ later years, those who benefited from their work showed their gratitude in many ways, including gifts of food and money, visits, errands, and other support.
Some of those who embrace the 2011 Faery statement of principles are blessed to find themselves in comfortable economic circumstances now but have struggled in the past. Among us are those have experienced major illness, or supported families during the major illness of a spouse; who have struggled after a divorce or death, sometimes as single parents; who have lost jobs and unsuccessfully sought work for months on end while bills mounted; who have pursued advanced education and took on heavy debt, only to graduate in a contracted job market; and who have lived on a meager pension or disability payments. Some of us still struggle in those circumstances and are quietly helped by loved ones. We know that difficult times come to many individuals and families, especially in the political and economic climate we find ourselves in today, and we share a commitment to provide aid to each other and our communities during times of crisis.
Although some of us paid teachers for parts of our training, many of us were taught without financial obligation and fed in our teachers’ homes, even when our teachers themselves were struggling. Some of us were trained during financially difficult periods in our lives when we could not have afforded to pay for training. As teachers, we do not want the financial situations of either our students or ourselves to create barriers between us. With the generosity of the Andersons and our other teachers in mind, but knowing that our resources are finite, we have committed only to teach as many students as we can meaningfully welcome into our homes as family. This practice helps to create the permanent, stable, emotionally intimate relationships that are essential to our Craft.
We celebrate those among us who make a living teaching knowledge that, while not part of the Craft itself, informs our understanding of it: poetry, literature, religious studies, ethics, history, anthropology, psychology, biology, physics, and more. We do not, however, consider teaching to have a higher status than other kinds of work. Among us are health care providers, craftspeople, workers in the service industry, administrators, and many others—all of whom bring their insights as witches to relationships with co-workers, clients, and the public. We affirm that all these professions can be the right work of a witch, who creates a subtle but pervasive positive impact on hir community.
May we all be prosperous and surrounded by loving kin; may we all find our right work.
[Republished from the original at A Word to the Witch.]
And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i’ the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor’s soul with power.
— from Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland
Witches generally speaking work in small groups and have a certain anti-authoritarian, anarchistic bent. The latter is especially true of traditions like Faery which have no effective hierarchy beyond “initiate/non-initiate”* but it remains a trait of even (relatively) more hierarchical traditions. As people experiment with more “churchy” organizational structures, that tendency may wane; however I think that inevitably the “witchiness” of a given group will wane along with it. In his post “When Wicca is Not Wicca” Jason Mankey says “Wicca works best in covens, and not groups of 200 people.” This is emphatically also true of other forms of religious witchcraft, possibly more so. But why? And what do hierarchy, authority, and group size actually have to do with one another?
Part of the answer I believe lies in the monkeysphere, also known as Dunbar’s number. This is an anthropological theory which states that there is a practical limit, determined by the size of the neocortex, to the number of others that a human being or other primate can perceive as distinct individuals; therefore, a limit to how many individuals with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Groups above that number tend to either break apart or develop restrictive rules and norms in order to maintain stability, along with ever-more-authoritarian means of enforcing those rules. That number for human beings is somewhere between 150 and 250, depending on a number of factors including how much outside pressure there is to force cohesion and how much the members communicate and interact.
Wait a minute… I just said that witchcraft works better in small groups, much smaller than 150. Dunbar’s number is the upper limit of any kind of group cohesion, including the kind between neighbors and tradition members. It’s worth noting in this context that not long after the number of Feri initiates passed 250, the tradition split. The level of intimacy required between coven members in order to function as a coven… in order to do good magic… is far greater. I would say, an order of magnitude greater. It just so happens that if you reduce Dunbar’s number by one order of magnitude, you get 15… which is darn close to the traditional number of 13 witches in a coven.
Well and good. This is a rationale for why witchcraft traditions are (dis)organized the way they are, and a counter to the arguments for bigger organizations and paid clergy (which by necessity go together). Note that I am not saying that Pagans can’t have large organizations or church-type structures, if they wish. What I am saying though is that it is a trade-off, and that if you choose a hierarchical group with by-laws and dues and so forth you are choosing not to have the kind of intimacy with one another that is an inherent feature of smaller groups. I am also saying that once you do that, it’s going to become less and less like witchcraft, and more and more like Baptists.
I don’t have one single thing against Baptists as such. But there is a reason why I am no longer one, and part of it is that my current religion feels more like home. I am respected and seen in some important ways that I did not experience in the religious tradition I was raised in, despite their genuine efforts to reach out to all members of the congregation as a matter of both theology and practice. I would like to suggest here that it’s possible that one of the most significant things which create the difference between a Pagan group and a Christian one is not actually theology but structure. That is because most people, unless they take it up as a hobby, are fairly fuzzy about theology, but everyone participates in the way their particular religious tradition is structured… by necessity. Which in turn shapes both behavior and ideas.
The notion of the monkeysphere and its corollary with regard to coven size also points to some valuable insights about how witchcraft groups should work: spending non-focused social time together as a group, one on one time with each other as individuals, talking out how the group as a whole feels about various issues. Of course, all that requires time, and some months it’s all my coven can do to get together for ritual, but on the other hand the majority of our “ritual” time is actually spent eating and talking…
That intimacy is important for its own sake, but it is not “just” social time. We humans are social creatures; it defines us. The relative lack of rules and enforcement in a small, intimate group, where boundaries of behavior are negotiated between individuals of equal standing, means that such a group has the potential for reaching an ideal balance between compassion and freedom possible nowhere else; the addition of religious ritual has the added bonus of fostering group cohesion without having to enforce additional constraints. And because we are not just talking about a quirk of religious witchcraft traditions but inherent qualities associated with being human, all of this also has implications for society as a whole. “How can we best be human with one another?” is perhaps the most crucial question we can ask. How can we retain that humanity when, as we must, we are dealing with the larger world? I think ironically the answer lies in those small groups, where we can be seen most fully as ourselves, and learn to see others most fully as well.
*I know some people have attempted to assert or form a hierarchy with wand colors indicating rungs, however I am here to tell you that it never actually worked.
“To know, to dare, to will and to be silent.” These are the four powers of the Sphinx within Hermetics, which were written by Eliphas Levi and found their way into modern Witchcraft and Wicca (as so much Hermetic material has). They are well known but often less understood. We can surmise that “to know” is to be learned and to gain knowledge, “to dare” is to go forth and do with courage, “to will” is to utilize one’s True Will to create change (magic) as well as to withstand the dangers of the Spirits, and “to be silent” is to hold silence and not speak of one’s workings. Each of these “powers” could be an article or even a book, but for this blog I would like to focus on silence.
My own tradition of Witchcraft had a sundering in part because of the fourth Power of the Sphinx. To…Be…Silent. Some of our initiates felt strongly that the Tradition needed to be out there and ministered to the public. They had written books, were teaching publicly (some for free and some for pay) and were discussing inner secrets (though there were disagreements as to what was actually secret between lineages) on e-lists and with non-initiates. Many arguments ensued between those of us who felt that we should have never come out into public view at all and those who felt that we needed to liberate the masses from their shackles.
This argument, gentle readers, is really between the priests (be they of any faith) and the witches who walk multiple paths at once. You see, the priest desires to be of service to the community and to help the profane to enter into a state of grace and healing via his Gods or Tradition. From the priests’ cause arise temples, books, public litany, services and a priest caste dedicated to enlightening the masses. Noble to be sure, but the work of priests has nothing to do with witchcraft, and usually they are opposed.
The witch is something else and desires liberation of self as the focus of her work, as opposed to working only on others or as a guru. The witch walks the “twixt” roads of the Spirits alone. The witch is not popular–hell, the witch is not usually liked, and that is fine because the power of the witch does not arise from the populace, it arises from the Spirits with whom she holds her vows. The witch does not sell her secrets for coin or ego gain, because the milk and breath of the Spirits themselves sustain her and allow her to live the life she so chooses. In other words, the witch may accept coin for services rendered, such as a tarot reading or a love charm for a lonely client or a curse well paid, but to sell her lore, the roads she travels, the names of her Gods, or the council of the Spirits is another matter entirely. She would dare not risk a loss of her Spirit bonds for the bondage of the church of Feri and its denizens or the shackles of false guru-hood, or be bound to the men of clay and their unabating hunger. For the witch cannot feed them; she can only walk among them, hidden in plain sight.
Unfortunately, both sides in this confusing debate shut down, and the tradition known as Feri cracked in two. There were those who felt a Mystery Tradition of Witchcraft cloaked in silence–more hidden from public view, and certainly not sold–was of utmost importance; and there were those who felt the true path was activism and work to heal and help the masses as their primary mission, as well as to share the Tradition with as many as possible in the form of a priesthood. Those of us who split away towards a more silent mystery tradition had our trust broken by the Feri Priests who took our sacred knowledge and published it, sold tickets to witch camps, sold merchandise, classes, and workshops. A whore house of our Lady was made and we wept. In the old days, a witch did not utter that she was so to anyone outside of her circle, and while times may have changed and some of us do indeed expose ourselves to the light, we here in the shadows would never dream of selling our lore, teachings, spells and secrets to the outside world.
Regardless of your opinion as to the split itself, the question still remains about actual silence. To be silent. What are we silent about and why? And why does it matter to be silent as a Witch? Why does silence matter in magic and to the Spirits?
I was taught the lore of the night and of liminal spaces, and that to be silent was of the utmost importance to traversing these roads. I learned that to speak of a spell before its fruition was to kill it, and later I learned that most people, because they are not of our witch-blood, do not understand our ways and indeed deeply fear what we do. This is because we as witches walk the path of the Opposer and of the Ophidian bifurcated mysteries. We are not here to convince anyone of our rights or to change their minds because we have had a deeply profound experience. We are here as witches to work on ourselves through transgression, to free oneself from oneself, and to connect with our Gods and Spirits. The more we keep in silence, the more we can do our work without the interference of the curiosity seeker or the people who wish to destroy us or steal our secrets.
I never share my inner workings or profound experiences with the Spirits. That, of course, is my choice, but I also follow the magicians and witches who came before me in regards to keeping silent. I have no problem with magical folk making a living from their arts, actually. I never did. My trust to keep silent was not unilateral in Feri, and as I saw myself and those who felt as I do lose more and more ground, I began to realize the importance of silence even more.
I used to argue and beg and try to convince my brethren who were teaching the Tradition for money that this was wrong and they were misguided, but after a time I began to realize that my energy was in vain. After a painful few years, I realized what had happened was that Feri had hived off into a Church with dogma and structure and exercises open to all, where priests were charging for entrance–a completely separate thing from the mystery tradition of witchcraft that it began as. To be sure, the priests have their mysteries and their magic, but a mystery tradition of witchcraft has nothing to do with profit or ministering to the masses.
The Sufis speak of such sundering, and I suppose it was only a matter of time that it would happen here as the tradition grew past its original few covens and into hundreds and hundreds of people. The priests of Feri have chosen to steward the masses and to shepherd them toward healing, and that is okay. We all have our parts to play and paths to walk. It is different from those of us who choose to walk the twisted and uncanny path of witchcraft alone. In walking this path, silence is probably one of the most important skills that a Witch and Magician can cultivate. So, I looked more deeply into why silence is important to the witch in regards to her inner traditions and lore, and I want to share what I have discovered about silence with you.
Why Silence is Important
Why would we wish to keep such amazing mysteries hidden? Why, when we have discovered such liberation and magic, would we not wish to share these things with the world, to lift them up and to help them out of their degradation? (Insert pamphlet of every major religion here, and NO thank you!) Here are my answers to those questions as a Traditional Witch.
The importance of silence in terms of keeping lore, or even keeping silent the fact that one was a magician or a Witch, was not lost on the Ancients. Most of the Mystery Cults of yore were passed orally, and to this day we know little of what actually happened in many of them, other than they were ‘there’ along with a few tidbits. A great example of these cults were the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, which were some type of agricultural and immortality cult and were regarded with respect and importance by the local and uninitiated people. Of course the populace knew that there was a Mystery tradition happening, but the inner lore and secrets were vigorously and violently guarded. There was a four-tiered system that preserved the inner mysteries for a select and learned few, but allowed many more of the masses to be involved and participate on a more surface level. Because of the rigors of entering the inner circle of initiates, those involved were less likely to spill the beans because they had worked so hard to attain their positions. However, it was not just a ‘mystical cool kids club’ that kept them silent. Many of the philosophers of the day such as Pythagoras (who was involved in a mystery mathematical cult), Socrates, Plato, Aristoxenus and Ammonius all knew and wrote about the importance of being silent for magical purposes. There was at the time an older doctrine of silence prior to ‘The Four Powers of the Sphinx’ called “The Mecurial Doctrine of Hermes,” which had five principles and may well have influenced Levi’s work. Below are the translated fragments.
And Mercury saith:………….
They were as follows:
- That sharing holy matters with profane minds pollutes them:
“You may call Ammon; but summon no one else, lest a discourse which treats of the holiest of themes, and breathes the deepest reverence, should be prophaned by the entrance and presence of a throng of listeners…” (Asclepius prologue 1b [Scott])
- That profane minds simply cannot grasp holy doctrine and often will mock those who preach it and are incited by the holy to commit violence or a greater evil because of lack of understanding:
“But avoid converse with the many…. the many will think you to be one who is laughed at… are never friends… and can urge bad men to more wickedness…. beware of talking to them, in order that, being in ignorance they may be less wicked.” (Stobaei Hermetica [Scott])
- Silence allows the divine enlightenment (magic or spell work or inner guidance) to occur:
“And now, my son, speak not, but keep a solemn silence; so that the mercy will come down on us from God.” (Corpus Hermeticum 13.8a [Scott])
- That it is futile to express the inexpressible:
“For there is, my son, a secret doctrine, full of holy wisdom, concerning Him who alone is lord of All and… whom to declare is beyond the power of man.” (Fragments 12 [Scott])
- That silence stops and protects against mistranslation because the words themselves have power:
“Translation will greatly distort the sense of writings, and cause much obscurity. Expressed in our native language, the teaching conveys its meaning clearly; for the very quality of the sounds; and when the Egyptian words are spoken, the force of the things signified words in them…” (Corpus Hermeticum 16.1b-2 [Scott])
Interestingly, these sentiments are also expressed by Jesus when he states to his disciples that they should “understand the mysteries of the Word of God, and that the others (the people) should receive the parables only” (Matthew 13:10-4). And who could forget the famous line “cast not thy pearls unto swine” (Matthew 7:6), or the wonderful phrase from Psalms, “I have hid the words in my heart so I do not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:11).
We have here a later mirroring of the ancient Greek philosophers and magicians in Christian lore as to keep silent the mysteries from the masses and to keep silent the messages from the Gods themselves lest you incite their wrath. Virgil says of the Sibyl, “The Goddess comes, hence, hence, and ye prophane; The prophet cries, and from her grove refrain.” In other words, outside of the presence of the Goddess, keep your mouth shut. The mysteries, whether passed down as lore in a tradition or specifically from the Goddess to you, are meant for you alone at that particular time. Why would you reveal such intimacies to the world? Why risk angering the Spirits you have worked so hard to be in relationship with?
The obfuscation and disguising of lore in plain sight, which was to be opened up only from master to disciple, is found in many traditions from Masonic Lodges to lineages of Traditional Witchcraft. Sufi masters famously teach through story, which while read by the masses makes little or no sense or comes off as humorous, but read or taught ‘with eyes to see’ leads to enlightenment. There have also been many cryptic images from various private sources that hold clues from Traditional Witchcraft societies, Free Masonry and other magical Societies such as the A:.A.:. Some of these familiar and unfamiliar images in Traditional Witchcraft were collected and are now housed in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, Cornwall. Each “image” has many meanings and lore behind it and may show spell components, ritual tools and the rituals themselves, all ‘hidden in plain sight” and relating to Traditional Witchcraft. Often the these entries include images known to Traditional Witchcraft such as the pentacle, the pin and nail, stang, crown, and various stellar lettering, but they also include (in code) how to use such items. This “code” would have been passed orally within a covine to ensure that were the images to be seen they would be unintelligible. Below is one such image of a magic circle and spell and a very certain Spirit to be called. Folks learned in ceremonial magic will know one of the Spirits here as his name is below!
|Symbols of Traditional Witchcraft. A ritual in code. The Occult Reliquary, Three Hands Press, 2010.|
These images will conjure reactions and feelings differently for each person who sees them, but they are indeed specific to Lodge societies and Witchcraft. To the casual observer or even student, they can be cryptic or oversimplified.
Another reason for silence is that the sharing of a working or your sacred altars or spaces with the masses opens you up to questions you might not be prepared to answer from people who definitely do not understand what you are doing. A simple example of this in my Tradition is that we do not believe in or adhere to the ‘Wiccan Rede’. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to explain myself or deal with angry Wiccans about this issue. Even trying to explain the history of how the Rede came into modern Wicca with its Hermetic and Thelemic and Christian roots incites more anger. These days, unless specifically asked, I tend not to try to convince people because they usually are too closed down to really hear.
One more good reason to be silent is to avoid negativity coming your way. Even if a person is not skilled at hexing, most folks can send negative energy at you, and this is difficult to deal with and causes you to have to engage in more cleansing and protection work instead of just doing your work. Exhausting to be sure! There are magicians and workers out there who are skilled, though, and who may wish to interfere with your work for many different reasons. Best to not let them know what you are up to, because then you can find yourself in a really difficult situation. You may also be working for clients who have had a curse laid on them by another witch, and you would not want the other witch to know you were working for said client because they would definitely interfere.
Then there is the problem of the “State” getting involved, such as the legal authorities, etc. As much as we like to say that we live in a “free” society here in the US and we have “religious freedom,” we are still living in a Christian nation and among Christians who make up the majority of said nation. Many people still have a fear of Witchcraft in their deep collective unconscious, and rhetoric such as “Suffer not a Witch to live” as read in the Bible or “If thou meet a Pagan kill them immediately” as read in the Koran certainly does not help. You could be lucky enough to run into the atheist government employee who does not think you are evil but thinks you are nuts. However, such encounters could still cause you problems. Best to walk among them and leave them at ease so you can get to your work. People have lost jobs and children because of prejudices against Pagans and Witches and Wiccans.
Speaking and telling of your workings also diffuses the power of them, especially during their process. I knew a Hoodoo Rootworker once who told me that the inner lore of his work could only be passed once. That is, he would lose all of his own power to do these magical things if he shared them, and so would only pass his power and tricks to the right student when he was ready to die. Makes you a bit more discerning to choose a student, does it not? Think of silence as being like a pressure building and building and then erupting with force and power. Wait, breathe, be silent, build power, release, have gratitude. Speaking of your workings not only can undermine them from the outside, but from the inside too, because your mind is always battling your True Will. This is the constant battle of the magician and the Witch, that is, to keep their minds flexible so that they can easily access a magical mindset. This is why so many Witchcraft rituals are filled with symbols: it is so we can bypass the mind and let the energy flow. It is also why we do so many exercises of purification and pattern breaking. We know we can be our own worst enemies too and that those little “you can’t” statements of the internal mind are very damaging. The symbols of the Craft are powerful indeed.
Symbols are important messages to our Fetch or Child Self, as it is known in my tradition, and are found in many occult places. Like the above examples in the image of Traditional Witchcraft, so too does that ancient tradition of Alchemy have its many secrets bound in iconography and symbol, both visible and yet hidden in plain sight. Many of the beautiful Renaissance and Medieval depictions of alchemical workings were known only to the initiates of its orders. Solve Et Coagula. The transmutation and complex change. Lead into Gold… physical gold or the transformation of the magician from base to enlightened…? A marriage of magic, science, will and Spirit. Can you imagine if you were to record all of your magical workings in an alchemical or pictorial code known only to your inner coven or circle? Would it not be something beautiful to behold in cryptic iconography and symbolism and a wonderful way to teach your students? Something to inspire the Fetch and the deeper selves….
|Commonly known symbols in Alchemy.|
|Often mistakenly thought of as the Christian Devil, Baphomet is a great example of an alchemical process depicted in pictorial code. Each symbol above has a complex meaning… Solve et Coagula…|
Of course, it is also important to keep our confidences with the Spirits and the Gods as well. They give their secrets and power to those who honor and work with them, and many of them do not like it when these secrets are shared with those who are not initiated or of your inner circle. The price of Hubris is always punishment from the Gods, and those Gods can come up with nasty teachings tailored just for you. You may have just had the MOST intense life changing experience in ritual with Hecate, and you may see things in a new light and wish to share and let others know ‘the Good News’. Please don’t. These things are especially for you from Her, tailored and suited for you at that time. My blood may run differently and my roads may lead elsewhere, and I am glad you had a great experience, but most likely it is not for me. If you desire to teach your inner mysteries and lore and transmit these things, let it be with one or a few screened students who you are sure are a good fit. Witchcraft and mysticism is not about healing or ‘getting better’. That is the road of religion, and I have no problem with that, it is just not the same thing.
Some people do feel called to share and teach publicly. I too love to teach and I write about many occult and magical topics, but of the inner workings of my tradition I will never speak or sell. There is a lot out there to research and share, but other things must be kept private, especially if you are part of a closed initiatory group or if instructed by a Spirit to do so. Also keep in mind why you would share some things and not others and the repercussions of your sharing. This can be a personal choice but it is also a serious one.
These are some interesting points to think about in regards to silence, and of course you will choose to do as you wish. I long ago abandoned the idea that I could ‘change anyone’s mind’ in regards to my views and experiences of Witchcraft. Take what you will upon the path. As I look, though, to the wisdom of the ancients and those who came before me as magicians and Witches, I see a long tradition of silence and of only sharing with those worthy. Make sure that those who you choose to share your most precious pearls with are indeed worthy of them, and be wary of those who share with anyone what they claim to be the wisdom of the Ages. Walk in magic and beauty, and let the mysteries reveal themselves to you in their own time and your own time. To force them is to beg for disaster.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Llewellyn Press. Donald Tyson Edition, 1994.
Davies, M. and Lynch, A. “Keepers of the Flame. Interviews with Elders of Traditional Witchcraft in America.” Olympian, 2001.
Marraccini, A. “Open Secrets: Alchemical-Hermetic Imagery in the Ripley Scrolls.” Charming Intentions: Occultism, Magic and the History of Art-Select Papers-Cambridge. Abraxis Special Issue #1. Fulgar Press, 2013.
Schulke, D. The Occult Reliquary. Three Hands Press; The Museum of Witchcraft, 2010.
[Originally published in Witch Eye #9; republished by permission of the author.]
At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with just how ornery and fractious we appear to be from the outside. We hear it often enough. And it’s true; we ain’t exactly sweetness and light. Not too long ago, someone remarked to me, “You Feri-types aren’t quite what I expected. I mean, most of the folks I come across in Witchcraft groups these days try to act like nothing ever goes wrong, like they’re too ‘spiritually evolved’ for anything like that. Y’all don’t seem to mind being, well, openly quick-tempered. You’re a pretty irascible bunch!” I thought that was putting it rather politely.
A couple of days later, a student of mine complained that when she worked with the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, she “felt irascible.”
Irascible. It’s a curious word; you don’t really hear it used in conversation very often. It’s a little archaic and old-fashioned.
Sometimes, I find myself caught by a word like that. Maybe I’ve never heard it before. Maybe I have, possibly quite often, but never really gave it much thought. Part of it is just the way a certain word feels in my mouth when I say it. There I was, with “irascible”. What did it mean, exactly? Where did it come from? Was its appearance in my little corner of the Universe just one of those things, or was there something to be learned here?
Words are magic. Words are something we humans use to create our world, carving packets of energy out of the universal froth, investing them with meanings and significance, and linking them up in webs and patterns of association and reflection. The magical power in words lies not only in their ability to focus our energy compactly, but also in their inherent fluidity. By changing our words around, we can change our inner perception of the world and thus how we experience it. Perceiver and perceived create each other; change the nature of the perceptions, and the ripple effect flows outward into the world and creates change there, too. Like I said: magic.
Looking into how words come to mean what they do is kind of psychic archaeology. The ways in which a particular word has evolved, adapted, and mutated reveals a lot about people and and how we try to understand the world and ourselves across large swathes of time. Working on “irascible” took me on an interesting little trip; it’s part of a whole constellation of words whose meanings are particularly curious in light of things Feri-esque.
The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, provided the following: “Prone to outbursts of temper, easily angered…” It originally entered Middle English via the Late Latin word “irascibilis”, from “ira-”, meaning “anger”. The root-source is in the Indo-European root “eis”.
All the words in Indo-European languages that grew from this little root have do with passion. As above, Latin got “ira-”, which gave English words like irate, ire, and, of course, irascible.
From a suffixed zero-grade form, *is(e)ro, it shows up in Greek as “hieros”, meaning “powerful, holy”. It denoted a state of being literally “filled up with the Divine.”
In Old High German, we find “isarn/isan”, which migrated into Old English as “isern”, eventually becoming “iren” — iron! Linguists believe that the source of this is a (possibly) Celtic word, *isarno-, meaning “holy metal”. Iron came from thunderstones, bolts of star-stuff that fell to Earth in a blaze of light and fury. Nowadays, we call them meteorites.
Another turn that “eis” took in Greek is a suffixed o-grade form, which replaced the initial “e” with an “o”; this gets us *ois-tro-, or “madness”, and gave English things like estrus and estrogen. Poke into ancient Greek religion a little bit, and you’ll find that the Greeks considered madness to be the touch of the Divine; the direct experience of divine power could be enough to send a person raving into the night, even if only temporarily. Among others, the Maenades, Bacchoi and Delphic Pythia spring to mind.
All this linguistic geekery aside, where does this leave us? Whatever the word’s history, people who call us irascible are not usually referring to how “filled with the holy” we seem! Why are we such grumpy Fae, so “prone to outbursts, easily angered”? What’s up with that?
First of all, anger has a bad reputation which it doesn’t really deserve. To be sure, out of control anger has caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering. That, however, has less to do with anger itself than with how we deal with it. Anger is innate, hardwired into our systems by millions of years of evolution. Anger is a response to having our boundaries, physical or otherwise, violated in some way. We tend to feel anger when someone crosses an important boundary in a way that makes us feel threatened, a way that we feel is an attempt to co-opt or diminish our autonomy as beings. In short, anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.
There is nothing inherently wrong in feeling an anger-response. It’s the sentry that guards our physical and psychic integrity from attack. Healthy anger is never vicious or sadistic. Its energy is tremendously powerful. What makes the difference is what we choose to do with all that energy. Do we use it to strengthen and restore our violated boundaries in a way that is skillful and honorable, a way that reestablishes not only our own integrity, but also that of the person or persons with whom we are dealing? Or do we lash out far beyond our own energetic perimeter in a search-and-destroy mission, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of carnage behind us?
When we are grounded and centered in the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, we are alert to the signals of anger and to what they mean. We can move quickly and surely to restore our boundaries; no more, no less. To people who habitually violate others and steal their energy, this is enormously frustrating. Trying to siphon energy out of a person with strong, healthy boundaries is an exercise in utter futility. More often than not, they may try a little word-magic of their own, and accuse their target of being difficult, touchy, defensive, or just plain ol’ mean. This often works; after all, we don’t want people to think we’re mean, do we? We humans are social animals, with an innate desire to be liked. Our survival depends on being part of a group and “getting along” with the other members. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this can be used against us. How often has the admonishment to “be nice” really translated into “be controllable”?
If you’re working in the Feri Tradition, being seen as “not very nice” isn’t going to keep you up at night. Our teachings place a very strong emphasis on guarding our own life-force. Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself. In the face of that, the opinions of users, crazy-makers, and energy-suckers tend to get short shrift.
When work on the Power Point really kicks in, it’s a tremendous release. We start to see the ways in which our lives have been shaped and molded into something not of our desire, something that our souls barely even recognize. It can be the revelation of a lifetime of having our boundaries violated as a matter of course. Anger is understandable. “Nice” isn’t going to be very high on our list of things to be. Once we begin to see how much of our power we have surrendered, or even had stolen from us outright, getting royally pissed is only natural. After spending so much of our time bound up in fear of isolation and ostracism, of having the life sucked out of us by a tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts”, the experience of severing those energetic bonds can be quite the rush. A period of enjoying this new-found ability is only to be expected. In Alchemy, this phase is called “Separation”, a process of cutting through attachments that don’t contribute anything to our lives. Its correspondences include the color orange-red, the planet Mars, and, interestingly, the metal iron. The individual in Separation is a warrior of heart and spirit, sifting through the layers of their identity, keeping what works and letting go of that which does not. It’s the first place I see most people go when they really begin to grasp the Power Point. It’s cathartic, caustic, and it can be really rough on the other people in our lives, if they have no idea where it’s coming from.
It’s also really easy to get stuck there. The sense of liberation, of lightening the load, is exhilarating and enlivening. So much more juice flowing through our system, so much more energy! It can be highly addictive. It’s also only one phase of the process; if we get hooked on it, it can quickly degenerate into paranoia and simple psychic blood lust. Human history is littered with examples of people who got caught up in this energetic slicing and dicing as an end in and of itself. Having strong, healthy boundaries is good magic. Disemboweling anything that moves is not. Skillfulness in the Power Point is knowing how and when to wield that magic knife.
Feris who live from a position of being grounded and centered in their own inner place of power are always going to seem a bit cantankerous. It’s not a flaw, no matter what the energy-thieves of this world might say about it. Their meat and drink are the doormats of this world; their bane, the people who own and keep their power. So, go ahead. Be irascible, and be proud of it. I know I am.
[Slightly revised from the original published at Boston Bloodrose Faery.]
We are a sex positive tradition, but you must know the heart of the one you approach. No one must ever be approached with force or poor intent.
~ Victor Anderson, 2001
Coercion under any circumstances is morally and ethically wrong. When coercion appears in the sphere of teaching, however, there is a particularly invidious taint that enters the picture. Teaching is, at its heart, a fostering—which often requires challenging the student. It is thus a process which has as its aim to provide a space in which the student can fully realize hir own potential to the finest possible flowering.
In horticulture, gardeners employ techniques of training and “forcing” and other potentially harsh methods. But the human flower does not prosper under such conditions. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says that to follow the path of Self Realization is to walk the razor’s edge; the path of the teacher can be one that requires, every bit as much, a course of conduct as rigorously disciplined. My happiest moments as a teacher have been seeing a student come fully and completely into the recognition of hir own Power; to fully own, and be at ease in, the wielding of hir own Strength, hir own faculty to pursue and embody Wisdom. Coercion can have no place in this.
Tests are needed in the course of time to determine whether a student is ready to continue. Often, the result of such a test is that the teacher must withdraw for a period and allow time to pass and seeds to germinate. Such testing must not be exercised in a coercive manner. It should never be about the teacher’s supposed superiority over the student. It should always be about knowing just when the student is really ready to trod terrain that could otherwise be daunting, frightening, or overwhelming. Perhaps all of that is part of why one of my favorite teachers always described himself as a tourguide. A good guide knows not to lead one into the swamp until one is wearing proper wellies—so to speak.
Witchcraft is a deeply physical discipline. The Faery current is fierce, feral, and unabashedly sexual. It also holds high the values of honor, respect, and what Victor Anderson called “impeccability.” Cora Anderson wrote: The Craft as we know it has a code of honor and sexual morality that is as tough and demanding as the Bushido of Japan and of Shinto, which it strongly resembles and in many important ways is identical to. This code is in no way puritanical, ascetic or anti-sexual. When I teach the Craft, I bear this code of honor rigorously in mind. And all of this is why, when I evaluate a potential student, I look for an individual who has a secure, well-established sense of hir own boundaries and the capacity to learn and maintain habits of good psychic hygiene. If the individual seems too unsteady, unsure of hirself, or just unstable, I will advise hir to go home and work on personal growth and nurture. In such cases, I think it is most inadvisable for a person to engage in magical work that has any goal beyond self-healing and self-care. And again, this is why I always begin by teaching the work of grounding, clearing, and centering: observing a person going through these exercises and checking in with hir immediately afterwards can tell one a great deal about what’s really going on inside, as opposed to the “public version”—how the individual presents hirself to the outside world.
Let us be clear and concise in expressing this foundational principle: teaching and coercion, on any level, don’t go together.
[Slightly edited from the original published at Confessions of a Hedge Witch.]
Sometimes I imagine what I would say if one of my children explicitly asked me for training, or intentionally sought it for themselves. They were all exposed to the Craft, as well as general pagan perspectives (and I will continue using the general term ‘pagan’ because I feel it provides a touchstone we can come together on politically and academically). They also engage in witchy activities and hold very pagan beliefs, though they may be in various stages of consciousness on that front.
I think about the heartfelt advice given by one of my early initiators, Juniper. We shared a similar Christian upbringing, and we both had children. Through tears she bravely confessed that if she could go back, knowing what changes and pain lay ahead, she wasn’t sure she would choose this crooked path again. You see, once you put your foot to the path, there is no way but forward – whether to madness or transformation.
Most of my friends who are witches say they always knew they were. That there was never a moment of decision, only one of recognition. It may be that they were outsiders, or just felt themselves different, somehow. This is a critical point to ponder.
If you feel ostracized, if you feel outside the group: take notice whether these feelings make you uncomfortable. If there is a part of your mind seeking validation or the experience of fitting-in – you may want to reconsider this path. Certainly there will be a feeling of kinship, and a relief in having found your own kind, but consider: The Witch lives on the outside of society. Hir path is alone, through a forest darkly. There is no band of brothers who march off to fame and glory together, nor is there cultural acceptance or wide-spread recognition. There may be camaraderie, and you may finally understand your inherent difference, but think long and hard before committing yourself to further differentiation. To be Marked… is for life.
But, if one of my children did ask… even after I ignored them, or tried to put them off (you see, it is a dark path…and I can’t say I would wish it on anyone), the first task I would give them would be to GO OUTSIDE.
Not to glory in airy fairies, or rainbow ponies. I would require they spend a year learning the land: what her seasons are; what her geological history is; what other-than-human persons share the land with them; what the history of her communities are; what weather patterns are dominant; where is the sun in the sky on the longest day; what celestial observations when the season changes; what ARE those seasons there, on that land; what orientation is associated with significant phenomena, whether seasonal, atmospheric, or historical.
I would NOT ask them to leave their locale. This work does not require leaving the city and finding some idyllic country location. The Witch knows the environment he resides in, not one of hir imagining. The Great Powers are everywhere, and everywhere, are different. Know them.
At least I think these would be my first remarks…. if a child of mine saw this path in the forest and reached for the gate.