Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
Paging Thoth & Athena
I read a lot of blogs, go to a lot of conferences and festivals, teach a lot of workshops, and have lively discussions with friends related to all things Pagan and Magickal. Although I can say that ease of access to ideas through the internet, bookstores, and Pagan and Magickal events has increased awareness of many social issues, ideologies, religious and theological perspectives, and the vast amount of minutia related Pagan culture and fads, there is an increasing percentage of the Pagan community that is magickally illiterate and innumerate. I’m not saying that people are less serious, less devoted, or less committed to their path. Nor am I saying that the level of discourse has dropped, in fact in many ways it is much more sophisticated in exploring the development of Pagan culture. What I have noticed is that the technical end of things, magick theory, sacred sciences, and the like, are less well known. I've also noticed a trend towards focusing more exclusively on the lore and mythology of a specific people or a specific time at the expense of a generalized understanding of how magickal paths manifest in a variety of cultures and communities.
There has been an increase in the academic study of both historic and current Paganism, which I greatly appreciate, but much of that research is magickally illiterate and innumerate even when it is well done. The criteria for what is valid and what has merit in academic circles is often quite different than what would be valuable and applicable in magickal circles. Also it seems to me that most of our pagan academics model their work on paradigms from the mainstream culture. I do understand the dilemma involved in trying to balance the need for acceptance by the broader academic community against the goal of creating our own sort of academic model. It is hard when “magical thinking” is used as a loaded term to describe irrational thinking when from a Pagan perspective it could mean thinking that includes an understanding of causality and synchronicity larger in scope than the shuttered limits of the mainstream.
Let’s start with the basics. The capacity to read, to write, and to do arithmetic is considered essential to the foundations of learning, hence the many programs throughout the world to reduce illiteracy and innumeracy. There is no existing word that I am aware of in a Pagan/Magickal context that is analogous to the core capacities implied by literacy and numeracy so for the moment I am just adding the word magickal as a way of exploring the question. So what do I mean by what I am tentatively calling magickal literacy and numeracy? It is not as easy to define as reading, writing, and arithmetic. By extension, magickal literacy and numeracy involves an understanding of symbols (the equivalent of letters, numbers, etc.) and of grammar and rules of operation for the manipulation and measurement of subtle forces. Magickal literacy and numeracy also means that a person has a way to read, to reason, to understand, and to make comparisons between magickal concepts, practices, and experiences. Integral to this is the capacity to analyze and to quantify what works, what doesn’t work, and why in rituals, operative magic, divination, and other similar practices. Magickal literacy and numeracy are hard to separate from each other, but this last description leans more heavily into the idea of magickal numeracy.
This kind of core capability would probably arise from a basic working knowledge of magick theory (laws of magick), metaphysics (philosophy of being and reality), trusted systems (Qabala, Astrology, Alchemy, etc.), and other related frameworks. This may be a good starting point from my perspective, but the next obstacle is in creating an agreeable curriculum. There are so many different approaches, schools, and systems that it becomes almost impossible for any one individual to have time to truly become conversant in more than a small sector of what is available. Moreover, the choices to be made and what is valuable to be included or excluded in such a curriculum would be determined by the sensibilities of the person’s starting point. There is also the predicament of finding adequate teachers for each of the topics that are included in such a curriculum. For many years, the rate at which new people have been entering into our communities far exceeds the rate at which adequate teachers can be trained so the challenge of finding teachers is significant.
This particular blog post is meant to be the start of a conversation around these issues. I’m still working on understanding what I have observed in the last few decades in our community and I’m still in the process of formulating both questions and proposed solutions. It may be that there are no good solutions, and if that is the case then the focus may shift to reducing and mitigating harm. I am still hopeful that over the next several decades we will make progress. I also understand that we are not a monolithic community, we are more like an ecology of communities. Different communities will have these issues move through them at different times and in different ways as each reaches the developmental stage where they become relevant. How much help we can be to each other hinges upon how much we actually know about each other and how much we hold as common ground.
If we work hard and are fortunate, then perhaps we might be able to take things a step beyond simple magickal literacy and numeracy. Perhaps we can increase the range of what is considered common knowledge in a magically educated person. Let's say that there were an imaginary college for all things magickal. In that college you might major in Druidry, or Heathenry, or Thelema, or Wicca, etc. By the way, this college is a thought experiment and not proposal. In addition to the courses that relate to your major, you would also take courses that are part of general education. The general education courses allow exposure to a broad range of disciplines that provide context for your major and the capacity to communicate and to interact with those things that lie outside of your major field of study. By the way, I believe that sometimes our best insights into our major come from looking at it from outside using the perspective of another field.
Those general education courses are really a subset of what corresponds to a liberal education. The goal of a liberal education is to empower people with the capacity to think and to understand and to adapt to a changing world. Today, that often means teaching a broad range of disciplines, multiple systems for knowing and analysis, and a grounding in ideas from both art and science. The origin of today’s concept of a liberal education evolved from the historical Artes Liberales with its Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), also known as the seven liberal arts. Perhaps one way to begin the discussion of what would be included in a curriculum for a general education that provides or expands upon magickal literacy and numeracy could be started by having discussions about which seven systems you think are needed for clear magickal thinking. Lest you take me literally, I don’t necessarily think that it is seven systems. It is just useful to have parameters if you’re going to be doing brainstorming and exploring.
I may write another post about this topic in the next year if I get clearer and sharper on my analysis of this concern. If you’d like to engage in a conversation with me about this, please look me up on my website or on Facebook. I gave a talk at Spring Magick 2011 in Pennsylvania called “The Touchstone: Discerning Magickal Truths” that has material germane to this blog. You may listen to it or download it at this link.