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.