Saturday, April 14, 2012

101, and Lengthy Metaphors

I'm writing a "Paganism 101" post for my tumblr, and in doing so I'm opening some of the old Ravenwolf books. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Well, to tell you the truth, I've actually forgotten what 101 might entail. And no one is more 101 than Ravenwolf, as we all know, so that's where I'm going. At the same time, I have my trusty scissors and craft knife; if nothing else, some of her title fonts or diagrams might be useful for cutting and pasting into my own Book of Shadows or other notebooks. Saves learning to draw, amiright?

So, here I am. When you open "Solitary Witch: Book of Shadows for the New Generation" you find (after the deliciously ironic dedication to Hutton and equally ironic comment about practising witchcraft honourably) the first topic: blessings. She just jumps right into it. A totally bizarre thing to start one's book with, but not a totally weird subject for a Paganism 101 post, so why not? I gave Ravenwolf's comments on the subject a puzzled once-over, pushed it aside and wrote something else. In doing so, I got thinking. What is 101? What is the appeal of 101? And why does Ravenwolf have like four pages of her crappy attempts at poetry? I mean is anyone actually going to read and use these "blessings"? 

And it occurred to me. These things are symptomatic. Witchcraft and Paganism are not easy. Whether or not you're a recon, whether or not you're an eclectic, you will be studying hard. You will be also relying a great deal on your own feelings and experiences, and you will be comparing those to the things you've learned from history, archaeology and lore. The difficulties of witchcraft are another thing altogether. Like it or not, unless you consider yourself mostly a lay-person who rarely worships, this stuff takes time and effort.

You're writing a blessing. You want it to sound good, but there are also things that have to be said. You're asking a particular god for their blessing, so you have to look to the appropriate cultural way to organise a blessing. Does it clash with your own personal taboos? How can you respectfully work around that - or should you? Maybe you're blessing your altar. Are you asking a god for help with that, or are you doing the making-holy yourself? If you're blessing it in a god's name, does this mean it's off-limits for worshipping deities they don't get along with, or deities from other pantheons? 

The Ravenwolf-type says "you don't need effort. I've done it for you". Of course, she hasn't done. She's scribbled a few garbled lines of shitty poetry, and tried to make a sentiment best said as simply "thank you" last for six lines. Why. Tell me why.

It's remarkable to look back, actually, on this sort of thing and see how very far she missed the point. In a way I feel quite bad for people who pick up her books and try, for e.g., the Cakes and Ale Communion and don't really feel anything. It's because the ritual significance has been stripped away. Ravenwolf's C&A is a poor approximation of an element of Wiccan ritual, and without the history, without the ritual, it's just... nothing much. It's paper.

This wasn't meant to be a Ravenwolf rant. We all know the problems with Ravenwolf. Many of us are past it - it's just a joke now, we don't really care. The bitterness and anger have seeped away. This isn't about Ravenwolf. I guess it's partly about the way the Pagan publishing world goes about reaching out to the newbies, and partly about a certain number of newbies who.... don't really bother. It's not that they're not interested. They are. They might be really, really into it. And it's not even that they're lazy. Maybe it's that they're afraid. Afraid of the hard work, afraid of how BIG Paganism is and that they might end up lost, or getting into something they don't really understand. Maybe afraid of the gods. Afraid that it's all real. Afraid of what they'll discover when they really start getting into it. But Ravenwolf (and others) are comfortable. Everything is laid out. Do this, this and this and you'll be a Witch, "the fastest growing religion in America today!". 

The issue, though, when everything is laid out, everything is visible... is that there's nothing underneath it. You lift it up and look for its roots, and there's nothing there. Everything has been shorn away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. "Book of Shadows" takes on a whole new meaning: silhouette but no substance.

My difficulty with writing a Paganism 101 was only partly because I didn't remember any of it. The other part was that Paganism is big.

I love that Paganism is big. You know this. I love all the differences. I love learning about how different religions do different things. It's rich and it's amazing. But I don't want to make any assumptions when it comes to people who might be reading it. What are they into? In which direction are they going? How can I explain, say, how to hold ritual when ritual is held in so many different ways? There are dozens of different ways one might hold a blessing, after all. So, I gave tips. Go forth, I said, and check the ways in which things were done before. Check cultural ideas of cleanliness and holiness. Check taboos. Be aware. 

I posted this, and then I sat back and read over it, and I thought: Is this what people want to see? When they ask for 101 information, is this what they expect to be given? I'm not really telling them much. I'm mostly telling them to go and find out for themselves. In many ways this is what Paganism entails - in fact it's what a lot of religions entail. Going Forth to discover things, one way or the other, for yourself. It's not information so much as instruction. Have I said anything of interest here? Will people read this and think "oh, that's interesting" or will they get annoyed and think "she hasn't really said anything"?

But what can I say? Even posting a list of uses for colours can change in not insignificant ways from one culture to another. I saw someone not long ago associating purple with modesty. Purple! The colour of royalty! I was quite astounded. But that is colour correspondences for you: they change from person to person, from culture to culture. So what's the point? I can't post a list of correspondences. All I can do is say "Make a list for yourself." Or why even make a list? You can access your own feelings about colours (or whatever) any time you like. Writing them down would just be a personal exercise.

So what's the point in 101? What can one say? Where does one start? How can you work within Paganism and its broadness, but give people something they weren't already aware of before discovering Paganism? And, maybe more importantly, when people ask for 101, what are they asking for? 

Reader, if you are new, and seeking 101, please tell me, what is it you seek? Genuinely, I wish to know. What types of things make you happy when you find them? Is it direction you want, or structure, or are you more keen on information? Are you happier with a list of books or with a book of lists?

If people are happy boating around in the Bay of 101, with no intent of ever heading out into the changeable waters of the Pagan Ocean, should I tell them to bother? If people are going to read my advice to go out and look at the lore, and think "no".... maybe they just shouldn't. Maybe there's no point in talking to them at all. Maybe in a few years they'll become atheists again. Or maybe they'll just stay in the Bay of 101 forever, and occasionally glance out to sea with a sense of both wistfulness and foreboding, and see a distant ship.

What do they think about this ship? Maybe to them it's some foreign, odd thing; something they want nothing to do with. It has strange shapes on it, and strange things go on aboard. It's not their sort of ship, and the crew are not their sort of people. Maybe they look at it and think it's actually in the Bay, and they are the ones at sea. Maybe they see a ship that perhaps they'd like to be a part of, but there's so much water between them, and they don't think they could ever get there. So they stay in the Bay, in their little row boat. Or maybe they look out to the horizon and they don't see anything at all. All they see is the Bay, reflected back at them.

Is it best to hail the boats in the Bay? Can we send back messages by semaphore, telling them of the wonderful things we have seen - and will they care, if we do? That is to say, should we bother? There will always be a nay-sayer or three who will tell us no creature could be so preposterous as the platypus we speak of, and we must be making it up. But if they have no wish to sail the seas, they won't go and see for themselves. And if one doesn't disclose, possibly one will be accused of keeping secrets. Like the Good Ship Wicca, that sails to a place that can't be described, and must be visited for oneself. "Secrets for the sake of secrets!" some cry. "It's the same as so many other islands," insist others. But the Good Ship Wicca does not share its maps, and will only take on board people it trusts.

Can you tell how much I am enjoying this metaphor? It is a fucking awesome metaphor. I haven't even started on the Viking Longboats yet. (They board other ships, plunder their gold and rape all their women, obviously.)

I am thinking back to when I was new, and what I wanted from things. I think when I began... I was sure there was a secret somewhere and I wanted to find it. I started with witchcraft, you know. That's what pulled me in. The Paganism became sort of a parallel branch. When I grew tired of the basic crust that was the 101 I knew, I tried to dig and had trouble breaking the surface. It took me a while to navigate back towards a more traditional, more, shall we say, occulty witchcraft with which I found some degree of satisfaction. With the spring thaw the ground became more easy to dig. I have much more digging to do before I find the secret, but I've found some secrets already, and I know I'm on the right track. Sort of. Well, the right general area, anyway. There's no geofizz in this metaphor so it's hard to be sure. And the Paganism thing? Well, that's much easier. People have been here before, and they've started excavating. I know where I am here. There are maps and sketches. It just took me a few years to work out where the dig site was. When I was new, I wanted to dig. I wanted the deep dark secrets. I also wanted them presented to me on a silver platter, but I think the hunger was there. I knew the silver platter was probably not forthcoming, but it would have been nice.

As an aside, I know I owe you a PBP post for this week. Unless I am caught in a fit of blog-writing madness tomorrow it will probably be on Hammer instead of Heathenry because damn I am feeling lazy this week. I also finished my little... charm.... thing, which I will show you anon. It is quite nifty but I'm not sure it is working. Either that or my brain has worked out a way to ignore it.


  1. I've heard anecdotes that "the newbies" now don't even turn to books. They just use the internet for their material. I don't know if this is true, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

    What I'd love to see, as someone who's been amuck in all this woo and polytheism for two decades, is more options presented at the start. Especially for ritual.

    1. True - but the internet can be as good a source as some of the more easy-to-find books. When you're young and have no money to spend on books, and the library doesn't have anything useful, I can see why many would lean primarily on the internet. Just gives us more reason to direct people to the good stuff, like Sacred Texts :D


    2. This is true. The real task is making the good information more accessible and not just stuff on par which makes us cringe when we look at the 101 material. Somehow I imagine there are still a bunch of sites people are referencing which come complete with blood-dripping lines and too many sparkly gifs, with text as equally helpful.

  2. Excellent post! I've been struggling in the 101 area for a little while, trying to break through with what I want to learn, which is witchcraft without the Wicca. I've read Buckland and Cunningham and per your recommendation, Murphy-Hiscock (The Way of the Hedge Witch, I'm enjoying it, thanks for the rec!) and I admit, the internet, and while they have been helpful, I need something else, which they don't really offer.

    So there I was, sitting back and wondering where to go. Spring came to us quite early here in the northern hemisphere, and as I was clearing out my garden and reveling in the smell of my lavender, rosemary, and catnip plants it dawned on me that even though ceremony doesn't call to me, gardening does. Now I'm just trying to save up for some tome of herbal safety and figure out a good witchcraft herbal-uses book I want to buy. Also, I want to look into what hedgewitch actually entails (and not what Murphy-Hiscock thinks it means), but for now, I'm content to watch those ships in the distance until I feel comfortable to sail out to meet them.

    And really that's all I can do for now, just wait for the day I can go to the bookstore for an hour or two to read and take notes without buying, meditate, and connect with what I already know. Thanks!

    1. If you like gardening, Murphy-Hiscock does a book for the Green witch as well. I personally don't garden - but I may in the future, and I asked a friend about books she would recommend. She suggested Bud, Blossom and Leaf by Morrison, so that might be worth checking out. Morrison is a Wiccan, though, and so there may be a fair amount of ceremonial flavour in what she does. Have a browse through on the "look inside" feature and see what you think, anyway.

      I think the Bay is important. It's good to learn the basics of how to sail, navigate and so on before venturing into the open ocean. It's good to take your time until you feel ready :D

    2. Ooooo, thank you for the recommendations!

    3. I enjoyed the blog and the replies. In my own life, what I need and am ready for shows up. Sometimes mixed with stuff that I don't need or want, or find just off the wall. But my off the wall may resonate with someone else.
      I second, third, and fourth the idea that we need to do our best to have the information available to those who want to learn.
      A part of that involves learning discernment. To sift through the things available and trust our inner selves must be learned to truly make progress.
      The internet is a wonderous tool and library. Color pictures of herbs, stones etc at our fingertips.
      Best to all, Merry meet!

  3. Ok: Quick background without bogging down your page with my story... I finally gave up, that's how I felt about it, giving up, giving in... I had felt "called" to Runes and Yggdrasil my whole life. My deeply religious family had never instilled an ounce of spirituality in me. I longed for it, and craved it. No matter how much I tried (and I did, I TRIED to let my previous religion be what worked for me) what they told me to do never worked.
    Enter last August, I was bogged down with anger from my past, with hatred of those who had done me wrong, in general I was a very angry person. And I couldn't take it anymore, I'd done everything they told me to do, whispered the right prayers like so many dead words falling on deaf ears, too many times to count. I never felt a thing. So, in desperation, I tried a cleansing ritual. You know, cast the circle, call the quarters, light the candle, burn the sage. Visualize the change you want in your life. It worked. It wasn't a one time cure-all, I've had to do a self cleansing a few times as I pick up the anger that has been my life's constant companion. The difference is that I can now let go of it when I feel it, I can put it right back down. Relief!!
    I have read whatever I can find. I soak it up like so much water in the desert. Some of my reading has been actual books, some of it internet, some of it questions I directly ask people that seem to know what they're talking about.
    You asked what newbies wanted to know... My biggest question is how to separate the feel good stuff from reality. I mean, sure, I want to feel good, who doesn't? But reality isn't about feeling good, it isn't about being happy all the time, and light and buoyant. Reality is about learning how to be ok, how to recover your happy when it seems as though life is out to get you.
    I want to know how YOU decided that purple is the color of royalty in your practice, and I want to know how you knew that you were doing it right. When you write out a blessing, how do you determine that it is a blessing worth repeating, or a crappy piece of poetry? How did you choose your pantheon? Did you? If you didn't choose one, why not? Without asking too much in the way of hubris from you, I want to know your experiences, because they'll help me form my own.
    I don't mind reading about what works for you (this being the first of your blogs I've read, I'll be catching up, for sure) because through your experiences, I can form my own. I don't mind how my learning comes, just that it does. You talk about floating around in the newbie harbor, how do you know you're even on a dinghy yet? I think I might still be picking out mine... I hope some of my inane rambling has helped, as I would greatly appreciate a well written 101 :)

    1. Great questions, thanks! :D

      Just to answer a few here: purple was associated with emperors in Rome and as with a lot of Classical stuff it carried forward. "Imperial purple" and so on. So it wasn't really something I decided, it was something I picked up on a subconscious level from my culture.

      Choosing a pantheon is always a tricky thing to talk about. For me, the Norse gods were always first on the list for pantheons to study, so when I eventually got down to serious pantheon-related work, they snapped me up and there it was. It was easy for me, and made easy also because . But some deities aren't palaeo-Pagan related (like the Star Goddess of Feri, and so on) so finding your way can be much more difficult for some people.
      Now you, personally, are drawn to the runes and to Yggdrasil, so I'd say your first port of call would be Ygg himself.

      Reality vs Feel-Good is an amazing subject. I might end up writing a big big post about that at some point, because it's important for us all. And there's not always a way to tell. We have UPG and we put it into the UPG file, and we bring it out every so often to compare it to what other people experience and to the lore and so on, but those are the only yardsticks we have, so it's a continual process of re-evaluation. Of understanding our gnosis and our impressions and part of that is also understanding ourselves. Anyway, that might be a big post one day, so thank you :D

      As for picking out your dinghy: if you haven't yet, pick up "Essential Asatru" by Diana Paxson to start with and "True Hearth" by James Allen Chisholm to carry on from there. If Heathenry doesn't turn out to be a fit for you, that's fine, but you've crossed one off the list and explored your interest in runes and Yggdrasil in the process :D

      Thanks for all your input!

    2. See, these are answers I can get behind :) Thanks for the heads up on Ygg... To be honest, I feel like I'm fighting the idea of a Norse Pantheon because it's kind of scary. They're real to me, not this... sort of... hmmm.... shade that has mysticism attached to it. And that's sort of an intimidating thing, here's this newbie and she wants our attention for a real relationship, something tangible... It really is... sort of scary, especially when I feel like a majority of Pagans think of the Pantheons as, well, "shades".

  4. I like you post and your metaphor. :)
    We all start in the bay, we learn how to sail, learn how a boat works. Then it is up to the individual: follow the call of the sea, or stay where it is safe.

    Personally I love the quote from Mark Twain:
    "Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

    1. Beautiful quote! I love it, thanks for sharing it :D