A Pyrate Perspective
The thoughts and feelings of a Pirate Wiccan on Pagan issues and community.
Mysteries, Secrets and Respect
In the "real world", I buy books for a university library. Saying that I feel strongly about the ability to freely and easily gain knowledge is an understatement. Knowledge is power. We are free to read anything we want, and for me this is right up there with our freedom of speech in defining individual freedom and personal dignity. Libraries are a vitally important aspect of our "free" society. These last few years, it's hurt me to see how many libraries were the first thing to be cut in the economic crisis, and how little people have taken into account the resources that are being taken away from us. Perhaps in this digital age we take libraries for granted. We've forgotten what it's like not to have easy access to anything we want to know, and what it's like to have our information controlled by entities outside of our control. Access to new information (wherever you find it) is the only way we grow and learn.
In the world of the Craft, we are at an unprecedented point of having access to written materials. We can communicate with people all over the world to seek out the things we ache to know. It's easier than it's ever been to find teachers, and for those of us who live to far away from an actual Pagan community, there are blogs, articles and books available to us. The fear of being "discovered" or of being accused of Witchcraft is not what it was in the past, and it no longer applies in the same manner. While being public, or "outed," can still have serious consequences, it doesn't usually lead to a fiery death at the stake.
The more technology we develop, the easier it becomes to get writing seen by the world through blogging, self publishing, internet zines and other venues. Because of this, the old way in which the Craft was taught for centuries, the Oral tradition, becomes harder and harder to maintain. My partner and I argue constantly about what should be written down and what shouldn't. I'll be writing a blog and he'll glance over and twitch and say something to the affect of "you can't SAY that publicly! One must earn that!" And then we bicker about what it means to be a part of a mystery tradition.
I'm constantly torn by my need to share knowledge and the realization that there really is a body of knowledge that you have to work to gain. As an initiate in my tradition pointed out to me, sure you can just be given information, but until you've experienced it, it doesn't really mean anything, and you won't really learn the lesson. He had a valid point. One of the reasons for the secretive nature of a mystery tradition is to assure that a student gets the knowledge when they're ready for it. And while I love books, and see them as necessities, books aren't going to teach you the secrets of our mystery traditions. Books can only do so much in teaching something like a religious path.
I was lucky enough to spend a weekend with Orion Foxwood a few weeks ago and one of the things I heard him say was, "We are not the people of the book, we are the people of the heart". In the current atmosphere of easy communication, I think it's hard to hold on to that sentiment, especially for a blogger like me. He also talked about how easy access to secrets can ruin them and take away their power.
This has become a huge debate and a huge misunderstanding within our current Pagan community. People who are not following a specific tradition scorn the secretiveness of mystery traditions, while those of us on a more traditional path tend to loose respect for people who we automatically assume aren't taking things seriously enough. And while I have certainly met a lot of people who were initiates in whatever tradition that I didn't particularly care for, I've always respected the work that they've put into to earn their initiations. They earned my respect simply through the fact that I understood that they've worked hard to earn mysteries that I didn't know. I wasn't particularly interested in learning those paths, but I understood that the role they were playing as priests and priestesses were vital to our overall Pagan community.
Mystery religions are exactly that. Most traditional witchcraft requires initiations through various levels to learn all of the secrets inherent within the particular tradition. Ceremonial magic and other magical orders do this as well. They are not religions or practices that will openly explain what their inner workings entail; to know this you must earn entrance.
There is a lot of blatant disrespect these days for magical secrecy. People want to declare themselves Pagan without taking the time to educate themselves about what being Pagan means. It's one thing to go out and learn it and then say, no thank you, I want to do things this way or combine these various paths. It's another to never seek any training out and just assume that you already know everything that you need to. What's the point?
My partner asked someone about a Wiccan symbol that a nearby Pagan was wearing. He was unfamiliar with the other person's tradition and was wondering if it was Wiccan or something else (it was a symbol used heavily in our tradition and he was curious to see if we shared similarities, but didn't want to offend the other person by asking too bluntly, since he had just been introduced). The person my partner asked (who was more familiar with the other tradition) is a professed Wiccan. When the person said they weren't familiar with the symbol, my partner brought up the fact that he wants to write a book about the lost secrets of Wicca because a lot of people don't know some of the old lore. The person replied, "well, that's nice, I'll pretend to read it and then go find everything I need in the woods". If this person were Eclectic and not "Wiccan" that would have been an acceptable answer (though still snippy), but I was really taken aback by that reply. Why would someone who is following a specific path not want to know more about that path? Why give yourself the label if you don't want to actually practice what that label means?
When the traditions start dying out, which they will if people decide not to follow them as seems to be the ongoing trend, some of our deeper, most protected secrets will disappear forever. There is a reason there are a lot of "101" books out there and not very many advanced ones...people don't tend to openly write the advanced stuff down, because much of it is oath bound. It's also not the sort of thing you hand someone who has only read the "101" books.
When I first heard that Brian Butler and James Franco were working with one of the actresses from the Twilight movies to recreate/reenact/perform(?) Crowley's Bartzabel Working, I cringed.
(If you want to read more about this, Jason Pitzl-Waters posted "Ritual Magick as Performance Art?" on the Wild Hunt, discussing the ritual/performance piece that took place at an L.A. art gallery. To read one of the announcements about it, go here and to read one eye-witnesses' personal reaction to it, go here.)
I originally came across the advertisement for it in Spin Magazine, which mainly focuses on music and in which I usually read articles about my favorite performers.
Imagine my surprise when I clicked on a link about a Crowley ritual!
And while ritual can be as much theater and art as religious experience, there is certainly a time and place for it. And if it's being done to be Art for Art's sake, it should be done well and with a certain level of respect for the spiritual aspect of the rite. It's something that I don't think should be glibly played around with.
Crowley himself seems to have been pretty infamous for his attention seeking, just as Brian Butler, who is an admitted occult lover, did with this "ritual". Alex Sanders is also well known for regularly calling up the newspapers and asking "if they wanted to come down to see a little witchcraft". Maxine Sanders used to be the naked chick who was "sacrificed" at rock concerts. This is certainly not the first ritual to have been done publicly and it won't be the last.
Neo-Paganism has a long history of famous people going back and forth about what information they can publicly discuss. Some, like Alex Sanders, were not shy about showing everyone and their mother what they were up to.
Others, like Waite, tried to cover things up a bit more. Most people I know that have been initiated into established traditions are oath-bound not to discuss their inner circle workings with non-initiates, and most take this very seriously.
While the most famous Books of Shadows, like Gardner's and Sanders', have been published and are available for anyone to read, the rest of us like to keep things a bit closer to the vest. I don't think that I'm going to shock anybody when I say that witchcraft and the occult are generally known as being secretive practices. I would go so far to say that this is one of the things that appeal to many people.
And whether you are old school BTW, another tradition, or a modern Eclectic, there are some things you just don't share with strangers.
What I think I found most abhorrent about this "ritual" was just how badly done it actually was. Yeah, they had cool robes and a fancy "stage", but even I could have done better than Brian Butler and his "grocery list" reading of the ritual. I also dislike the blatant disrespect for every aspect of the rite and for the deity evoked. If you're going to take something like this and make it an Art piece, at least try to do it well.
Christine Kraemer just wrote a blog called "Opening a Pagan Theological Discussion" where she begins with:
Paganism is focused on practice rather than on belief. Ritual – whether we perform the rituals of a particular tradition, innovate our own, or a bit of both – is at the center of most Pagans’ religious lives. We build altars, sing chants, leave offerings, drum, and dance. But the ritual of reciting a creed, a doctrinal statement of belief, is notably absent. Pagans may recite liturgy together, but none of it begins with “I believe.”
I've seen various forms of this sentiment through the last few months, especially focused at Wicca. Many people seem to question (again, especially in reconstructionist style Paganism) belief in deity and belief in creed. If we are a "people of the heart and not of the book", having strong belief is the most vital aspect of our practices. Sure there are "Pagan Atheists" out there, but they are not the norm. We do have theology and creed. Things like "The Charge of the Goddess" fill this theological niche of liturgical creed. And while many traditions don't use "The Charge", they have their own liturgy. Just because YOU don't know that liturgy does not mean it does not exist! The language that we use and the titles that we give things do have specific meanings. And why do we need to say "I believe?" Because Christians do it? I believe very strongly in my Gods; I don't feel that I need to open every ritual with "I believe." I'm pretty sure that my Gods already know what I believe and don't need to be reminded. Maybe that's the difference between someone with faith, and someone for whom Paganism is an exercise?
Just because people don't want to take the time to seek out knowledge and want to make their practice be whatever they want them to be, doesn't mean that inner mysteries don't have very specific meanings and symbolism behind them. In the example I gave above, of my partner and our friend's response, I think we see some of what Christine Kraemer is talking about. I you declare yourself a follower of a tradition, you should take the time to learn how that particular tradition looks at these things, and learn the ways that this path sees "Paganism".
If you don't want to follow one of the mystery traditions, don't. You don't have to be a Wiccan to be Pagan. But when you start to label yourself one way or another, take a second to think about what that actually means, and the work that you're going to have to do to actually earn the title. We are not Christian, we are not a people of the book. We are a people that learns through the Oral tradition, through things passed from one generation to another. You don't have to know the mysteries and the secrets to be Pagan, but you should respect the time and work that people give to learn them. It's not the path for everyone, but it is a valid one and one that shouldn't be left to vanish because of lack of education or just plain laziness.
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