It’s probably a fair observation that I should probably get onto writing some more of my own stuff rather than linking to other people’s, however since this piece has arrived for Lammas, I must share it with those like-minded folk who visit.
This article explores the nature of relationships that form between coven members, and the importance of personal integrity in those relationships. But it isn’t hard to take Alicia’s advice out of the context of a coven and into any small group, be they friends, colleagues or team-mates. In any situation where people need to work closely together there is always the possibility that people will start to form bonds which become closer and more intertwined with time and use. What a lot of people seem never to grasp is the fact that those bonds hold people together in fundamental ways. Our emotions, ego and feelings of self-worth are often tied up in these associations and it becomes very easy for us to invest ourselves personally in the activities of others. So small matters are prone to being blown out of proportion, slights against others cut more deeply and disappointment stings more keenly.
Anyone who has experienced or witnessed the break-down of relationships within groups will find something familiar in Alicia’s words.
Over on the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering blog site is an article written by a senior member of the Gathering. It addresses many of the same issues I raised in my article from last year, only with an added depth of perspective and a delightfully witty and eloquent style I could only hope to emulate.
Events in my private life have recently led me to pondering the concept of personal accountability. It’s a sticky subject, for a number of reasons. What does it mean to be held to account for one’s actions? Does it differ from taking responsibility for one’s actions? If it does, it’s in a very subtle way, which is part of the stickiness. I’ve learned that responsibility is, at least in an interpersonal sense, rather a subjective notion. It seems to rely upon whether or not an individual is prepared to accept responsibility for their actions. If they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, then they cannot be held to account for them. At least, they will refuse to be held to account for them in the same way that they refuse to accept responsibility for them. I’m sure anybody reading this will be familiar with the scenario I’m describing.
Now, in civilised society we have laws, and officers of the law, whose duties include enforcing personal accountability in the form of the limitation, in some form or other, of an individual’s freedom. This might take the form of a fine, a community based order, or even a prison sentence. It is thought that through the process of administering the law of the land an individual is brought to the realisation that they are responsible for their actions and have been brought to account for them accordingly. It’s not a perfect system, I know. It would seem that being told by a judge and a jury of their peers that they are responsible for some action does not necessarily mean that an individual accepts that responsibility, even after they have been held to account for it. It’ll do, however, for the interests of society. Society likes to see that justice is being carried out.
In the case of interpersonal relationships it is somewhat different. We generally can’t force people to accept responsibility for their actions without being in breach of the law ourselves. So where does that leave us? Why, with rational discourse, of course. It is possible that an individual can be encouraged to share the view of another if they are prepared to enter into a rational discussion of the matter. It might go something like this:
Arthur: “Bill, I think you shouldn’t have told Fred that he was a noodle-brain.”
Bill: “But Arthur, Fred forgot to bring his knee-pads to training again. It’s happening often and it’s very frustrating.”
A: “I understand that, but when you called Fred a noodle-brain it hurt his feelings. Is it worth hurting someone just to express your frustration about their forgetfulness?”
B: “Well, I suppose not. I didn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings, I really just wanted him to realise how annoyed I was feeling so that maybe next time he would try harder to remember his knee-pads.”
A: “I’m confident Fred would accept that as being the truth. Perhaps you could pay him a visit, or call him and explain your position?”
B: “Yes, I should also apologise for hurting his feelings, I feel bad about doing that.”
In a perfect world, everyone would be of a rational disposition and would conduct themselves in an entirely rational manner. Our world is far from perfect, so a more likely scenario would be:
A: “Bill, you’re a bastard for calling Fred a noodle-brain.”
B: “Blow it out your ear, Arthur. You’re not the boss of me.”
B: “No I didn’t, who told you that?”
B: “Well Fred told me you play with dolls.”
and so on…
In the interpersonal sphere of experience, we have traditionally broken ourselves up into neat groupings called “families”, and we have used these family structures as microcosmic societies, with their own systems of justice. Parents would lay down the law, children would adhere to the law, order was maintained. This is still the case in some families, and in some cultures more so than in others. In the West, generally speaking, the family unit is breaking down, due largely to increased mobility of the workforce, increased divorce rates and commercial television. Well, the first two, anyway. Perhaps I should have added the advent of “aged care facilities”. Anyway, there have always been alternatives to the family unit when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we will group ourselves according to interests or beliefs. Religions, charitable organisations, clubs and societies, sports teams and such can act upon us in different ways. Sometimes they stand as intermediaries between the greater society and the family. Sometimes they have hierarchical structures similar to both families and society.
I read an excellent article recently that looked at the nature of initiation in a spiritual sense. It looked in detail primarily at self-initiation of various kinds. What was lacking was some insight into the nature of initiation into a tradition such as Wicca. There are two distinct qualities that differ from self-initiation: taking oaths before one’s gods and other people, and making a commitment to a group. A Wiccan group, or coven, is hierarchical in its structure in much the same way as in a family or in society as a whole. But when one is initiated one is bound to that group by oaths that honour not only the tradition but also one’s fellows within that tradition. Witches who work in covens will often report that after a time they become attuned to their coveners both emotionally and spiritually. The relationships formed in this manner can tend to be intense and highly charged, and in the past the general rule was that one wouldn’t socialise informally with one’s coveners. This was to avoid public blow-ups of energy that more rightly belongs in the controlled environment of a circle. It’s not a perfect system either, and unfortunately many a personal relationship has been damaged or broken because uncontrolled energies spilled out into the private lives of witches.
Because one has taken oaths, and because one is bound to a group of other minds, personal responsibility is of the utmost importance. Within the coven structure interpersonal disagreements can be brought forward and at that point the parties involved are obliged to conduct themselves in a rational manner, and it is the responsibility of those further up the hierarchy to maintain an objective viewpoint and to ensure that the dispute is resolved in a fair manner to all parties. Again, it’s not a perfect system and it’s been my experience that on several occasions even people in this situation can simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and hence cannot be brought to account. However in these instances there are other minds to consider, and there are often repercussions felt throughout the group when one member goes awry, not to mention the fact that oaths have been taken.
Now someone can have a bit of a tizzy without breaking oaths, that’s not the issue here. But the question arises that if not for the betterment of oneself why does one seek a spiritual path? I have written before on the qualities necessary to be spiritually “upright”, as it were, but I shall add to that the necessity for self-exploration. “Know Thyself”, the seeker at the Temple of Delphi was told. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates said. These are fundamental tenets not only of philosophy but also spirituality. The only explanation as to why someone wouldn’t behave rationally is if they are unable to, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are mentally incapable. Perhaps they are emotionally incapable. Irrational refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions seems to point towards an unwillingness to acknowledge something about oneself. That’s certainly been my experience. People who are afraid to look into themselves and examine what they find closely also tend to be the people who will deflect rational enquiry and apportion blame where it isn’t due.
We all do this, or have done this at one time or another. Whilst recently I have had cause to call out one person on their appalling behaviour and lack of personal accountability, I’ve also had to acknowledge that I had been at fault and allowed my behaviour to adversely affect another. It was uncomfortable and difficult to do, but also completely necessary. I could have adopted an attitude of belligerent denial of my culpability but what would it achieve? In the end, I’d have only been deceiving myself.
So finally, here’s a question for you: What is the purpose of reason if there’s no-one to reason with? To my mind, right now at least, I contend that individualism, especially in the form of the ego, is in fact the enemy of reason.
Necessity, as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. With that in mind I have recently been brought by necessity to contemplate a number of interesting topics, ranging from ethics to mercantilism to a much deeper and more uncomfortable examination of my own beliefs and motives. So, as inventively as I can manage, I will attempt to bring a number of these ideas together into an article of writing to amuse and bemuse in possibly equal measure.
The matter, I would reply if someone were game to ask, “What’s the matter?”, is related to in what manner and to what extent it is acceptable to profit from one’s spirituality. “Oh, is that all,” you might reply and go back to your needlework. I have chosen the term “spirituality” here quite deliberately, as I’m rather loath to use the term “religion”, because I don’t believe they’re synonymous. How one defines “religion” is really a topic that deserves its own article, and perhaps one day I will give it some consideration but not today. For the purposes of this piece, the term “spirituality” refers to a person’s beliefs of a spiritual nature, whether they be associated with an established religion, a recognised mode of spiritual practice or just whatever their approach to contemplating the great transcendent “otherness” might be. It will have to suffice as an unlikely umbrella, under which I will stuff (quite against their will) Christians, Muslims, Wiccans and Zoroastrians, with “solo eclectic practitioners”, hedge/kitchen/fairy witches and so on. The more I try to make it work the harder it appears to be but I’m going to do it anyway, as much for the sake of expediency as anything.
Just to make things a little clearer I am also going to acknowledge and dismiss, for the most part, the manner in which the world’s major religions have fleeced the public for centuries as being common knowledge. We all know about things like tithes imposed by the church and so forth, so I’m not going to explore those issues in any detail. This is partly because to do that I’d have to conduct some meaningful research on the topic, but mostly because it’s all rather irrelevant to the principal topic of paganism. Pagans and witches don’t, generally speaking, own large amounts of property and enjoy tax exemptions from the government. So I will limit the scope of my enquiry somewhat and focus upon how us pagan and witchy folks have, and continue to profit from our spiritual beliefs.
Of course, as I look at the bookcase next to me I see a great many books on a variety of topics that bear some relevance to my beliefs. So one of the first ways a witch or pagan can profit from their beliefs is to write about them. A good book is a great treasure, and I have noticed that a great many witches and pagans possess significant libraries. I suppose part of the reason for this is the occult (i.e. hidden) nature of most pagan and witchcraft practices. The knowledge that seekers seek is seldom easy to obtain, and historically the process of finding one’s way through the dark is to follow the lights cast by scraps of text hidden in books. All of the great names have published works: Gardner, Starhawk, Valiente, the Farrars. None of them have enjoyed sales figures like J.K. Rowling, however. Making a living as a writer of non-fiction books within such a limited field of interest must be next to impossible. Anyway, now we live in the Internet Age, and the old ways of going about pagan business are falling into disuse. Once upon a time you would put an ad in the classifieds calling for students (often worded in a somewhat cryptic fashion) or announcing oneself as seeking. Now you just google “paganism” or “witchcraft” and you can have a whole world of information to choose from. So, with a certain degree of irony, what was once hidden now remains hidden, only whereas once it was occult through scarcity and the necessity to hide from unwanted attention, now it is occult through the sheer mass of information that is very often endlessly reproduced from un-cited sources, plagiarised from extant sources, or simply (apparently) made up on the spot. I have both experienced the frustration of the former and witnessed the frustrations of others with the latter.
So how does the money come into it? Well, apart from spending it on books, which can be a thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding pursuit, there seem to be more and more “teachers” emerging who are offering their services for a fee. (They’ve always been there, by the way, I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Frank Zappa’s song from 1974, Cozmik Debris to give it a listen.)
My personal ethics, and those of my spiritual belief system forbid me from charging people for any knowledge or wisdom that I have acquired through my spiritual path. I believe if you operate in a group system, such as a coven or learning circle, it is entirely reasonable to ask for basic costs to be covered by participants – purchase of consumables like candles and wine, for example, or to maintain tools and paraphernalia. But for teachers, “leaders”, “instructors” or however they like to style themselves to profit personally from passing on “spiritual” knowledge or wisdom in the form of a structured “system” to me, at least, seems highly unethical. And now here comes the difficult part where I have to explain that.
It is difficult, this is now my third attempt. And I suppose the reason why it’s difficult is because in order to explain my position I feel I have to venture into parts of my own path that are not generally something I would share openly. I will go back to a previous article and re-invoke what I consider to be the core principles of witchcraft; or at least should be the core qualities of a witch, which are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. To my mind, for someone to use the knowledge they acquired through their own instruction within the context of a structured system for the pursuit of profit they are in breach of all three of these fundamental ideas. I must make it clear that I am trying to limit my premise to the teaching or instruction of spiritual system of practice. I should also reiterate that in my personal view, which is very traditional, knowledge that is passed on through traditional training is free, and should not be used as a source of profit.
Maybe if I examine these concepts further I can address my concerns. In a way, the third quality is really related to the first two. It’s as much about knowing when to be silent as knowing how. Silence is one of the most powerful weapons a witch possesses, and it requires such discipline to be good at it that it strikes me as though if you had taken the time to really come to grips with it, it would seem antithetic to go and sell your words to seekers. Likewise, as a seeker the ability to remain silent is probably the first and most important skill to perfect. How can you hope to hear what you need to hear when your mouth is loud and your mind is raucous?
Discretion is important to a witch because one is very seldom presented with scenarios that offer simple outcomes. This is true as much for one’s craft as it is for life in general. You can’t teach discretion, beyond offering advice, giving pointers or reminding the seeker to always learn from their mistakes. When you think about it, if you’re one of those that hopes to make a living from selling witchcraft you can’t afford to be discerning or to turn anyone away. You have to take all-comers in order to fill your pockets. It is, after all, what advertising folk might describe as a “niche market”. That, in itself, leads down a very difficult ethical path, because to my mind it is not ethical to pass on significant spiritual wisdom to someone who is unfit, for whatever reason, to receive it.
Humility is the most important of all three qualities. This is largely because it suffuses every element of the craft. Without humility you cannot remain silent or employ discretion. Without humility you cannot be anything other than what you perceive yourself to be. It takes humility to be able to release oneself from ego. However one who presumes to offer spiritual training for money can only be motivated by ego, and hence is not acting with humility.
Think about this (he says, in his best Morpheus-from-The Matrix-voice): how can another person tell you how far you have progressed spiritually, without you already being in possession of that knowledge? If I attend (or enrol online, as is more often the case these days) for Madam Moondrop’s school of all-things-witchy and pay to achieve the “first degree”, what does that mean, at the end? That I have enjoyed value for money? If I was humble, I would see that it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. If I had used discretion, I would have considered, “if the doors to spiritual instruction could be found by anyone with a library card, then money is unlikely to be the key to opening them”. If I had remained silent, I might have heard my common sense prickling at me.
Generally speaking, the great and ever-expanding library of books covering various aspects of witchcraft and paganism contain all of the “knowledge” a seeker needs. It’s been said a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and it is instruction in the use of that knowledge that is at the heart of spiritual practice. I implore all of you to employ your intelligence, refuse to suspend your disbelief, and go about your spiritual path with your eyes open. By all means take a course in Tarot, or Reiki, or herbology, or attend workshops in what-not or whatever. But if someone is telling you that enlightenment, “initiation” or occult power can be yours for a fee, then they’re trying to take advantage of you. The means of connecting with the Divine are many and varied, but ultimately your path is your own, and no-one can charge you for your own relationship with divinity. If you’re humble, use discretion in your choices and know how and when to remain silent, then instruction will come to you.
Originally written for the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering blog, below is an article that attempts to examine at once both the role of men in Wicca and how the sabbats of Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane relate to them.