Pagan Studies

Focusing on the Arte Magical as a practice and profession, we study various facets of magic through the lens of both classical and modern perspective. From ancient myth to urban legend to fiction and philosophy, all viewed through the eyes of a very practical magician.

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Let Me Tell You About My Character: An editorial on gnosis

Magic has been a part of my life since I was a kid.  When I was in first grade, my sister and I used to share our dreams, and hers were always eerily prophetic.  I had a couple of "invisible friends" in second grade who used to ferret out secrets from people and tell them to me.  We were the only kids who visited the "neighborhood witch," who was really just a nice lady with a really neat house and a fear of people.

The thing is, we grew up in an environment of sharing where magic was concerned.  It never occurred to us to hide it, because my mother encouraged us to be open and honest about our experiences.  She herself had grown up in a climate of silence about the uncanny, and she hated it, so she raised us differently.  The damage had been done where she was concerned, but she was determined not to have the same thing happen to us.

So... we were the witch children.  When other kids talked in hushed tones about ghosts, we chanted Bloody Mary without any fear, and confidently told others that they had nothing to worry about.  When we were teens, we watched that 90's movie the Craft, and we knew we could do better than Nancy did, that we were all as good as Sarah.  We didn't buy a Parker Bros. Ouija board- we made our own.

We were self-righteous, self assured, and completely secure in our vision of how the world worked.

We were, of course, naive- and wrong about a lot of our assumptions.  We discovered this as we went along.  But we weren't frightened.  We experimented, tried new things, and learned a lot about the world.  Like the Fool of the Tarot, we were foolish and self-absorbed and blind to our own ignorance.  We didn't know how much we didn't know.

That's the thing about magic, though: it exists as much for the fools as it does for the wise.  I hear people say things like "well, magic only works if you believe it does," and I want to smack them (an uncharitable sentiment, I know, but at least it's an honest one).

I feel this way because I am reminded of myself at a young age when people say things like this.  When people say "don't do mean things, because karma will come and get you," I cringe.  When I hear "think good thoughts, and good things will happen," or "there are no accidents, you create your reality," my hackles raise.


Because these are the banners and slogans of a fool.

Please make no mistake: I don't say this to be judgmental or cruel.  I say this because I am acknowledging who I was when I used to say things like this.  The fool in this story may possibly be you, I can't be certain.  But what I do know for certain is, for a long time, the fool was me.

In modern magical practice, we have a term we like to use to explain sudden epiphanies and realizations, unique and profound "understandings" of the world and the "true" nature of things.  We call that "gnosis."  It's a Greek word, it means "knowledge" or "knowing."  Yes, I did just use a lot of quotations.  I "do" that.

The thing is, gnosis isn't just about reading something in a book.  It's about realization, about processing information that we haven't really been given.  It's about looking at something seemingly unrelated, and having a sudden intuitive "flash" of understanding.

And, like much of a human's understandings... it can be and often is flawed or entirely subjective.

Gnosis in a Nutshell

Take geekomancy, for example- the use of geeky subjects and fandoms for casting spells and divining information from the subtle currents of the cosmos.

At some point, a practitioner of pop culture magic or geekomancy will be watching a television show like Dr. Who or Supernatural or Charmed, or perhaps they'll be reading a comic book or a novel, or playing a game with friends.

During these moments, there is no difference between the geekomancer and any other person doing the same activity.

But then... something clicks.  The geekomancer suddenly has a great idea, a moment of inspiration and "sheer genius."  They start to tinker with what they've been observing, move things around, and in a few moments voila!  They've designed a new spell!

They were reading this part in a favorite novel about a spell used to summon a loved one, and instead of just reading it like many people do... they tried it.  And it worked.  Now they have a new spell they can do, and also a key or clue to help them unravel further secrets of the universe.

This is gnosis in action- a moment of brilliant inspiration or understanding, which motivates one to try something or experience something mystical.  That moment often results in a feeling of deeper understanding of the universe, and/or reassures us that what we're doing is right or good.  It's one of the best parts of being a magician.

The Problem

How many versions of Thor are there?  Are they all the same Thor, just seen through different lenses?  Or is it more like when you were in fourth grade and there were seven Katies in your class?  Lots of faces with the same name?  Should we assign surnames or epithets to help differentiate them?  And does it matter?

The problem with gnosis is, it's not truth.  It's not meant to explain the universe.  It's not meant to tell us what we didn't know.  It's meant to inspire us towards deeper understanding, not replace understanding.

Take the above example: what if, instead of just using that moment of gnosis to try out the spell in the book, the geekomancer decided that it meant that the events in the book really happened, and that the world is actually secretly the world in the book?

Now, say the book they were reading was Harry Potter.

We KNOW that Harry Potter isn't real.  It was invented by J. K. Rowlings, and the events in the books and movies didn't actually happen.  Some of what supposedly occurred would have shown up on the news, even as unexplained events- Voldemort was dramatic as hell, and he doesn't play around.

Also, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint all went on to become actors in other things.  So we know the movies aren't real.  The books were written in lockstep with the events they were describing, and Muggles read them all over the place.  If there were a Ministry of Magic... they wouldn't have let that happen.

In other words?  Common sense tells us that the books didn't actually happen.  Allowing our gnosis to deceive our common sense is a mistake.

But hey, we're magical practitioners- where's the fun in being a party pooper?  Let's entertain the idea that our moment of gnosis doesn't need to be squashed.  Let's play around with it for a minute.

Moments like these are called UPG- Unverified Personal Gnosis.  I think Raven Kaldera first coined that, or maybe he didn't and he was just the first one I ran into.  UPG is a moment of gnosis that affected you, and has not been vetted by the outer world yet.  If Harry Potter is real, and the books really happened... there are a lot of things that will have to be explained.


So, like any good magician does, we seek out answers to try to test what we've discovered.  We ask other people about events mentioned in the story, and we test things to see if they're true.

And maybe... we find other people doing the same.  As humans are social creatures, we have conversations about our theories.

And holy Hogwarts!  We meet a small group of people who believe THE EXACT SAME THING WE DO!  HALLELUJAH IT'S PROOF FROM ON HIGH!

...Except no, it's really not.

Just because a person believes something doesn't make it true.  Ever hear a rumor about someone that everyone believed, which turned out to be inaccurate?

People will believe anything if they're afraid enough, or if they have enough to gain by it.  That second kind of experience is called PCPG (Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis) or SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis).

It's not proof of anything, but it does make us feel pretty good about ourselves.  And that's where we run into the problem.

My own childhood was filled with these two kinds of gnosis- stuff I believed and stuff other people believed with me.  There are religions and fandoms and "secret clubs" full of these things.  I wasted a lot of time on these kinds of gnosis.

Well, "wasted" might be a harsh word for it, but I did spend a lot of time spinning my wheels without getting onto the really meaty stuff in magic.  Namely, actual results.

See, the problem with gnosis is, it's NOT PROOF.  It's not substantial, it's a moment of clarity intended (in my experience and opinion) to enlighten our souls and inspire our actions.  It's meant to spur discovery, not replace it.

People mistake these experiences as fact, replacing truth with what they would like to believe.  That is a terrible way to learn, and it also wastes the true nature of gnosis entirely.

Gnosis, in my experience, is a sort of stimulus, a catalyst for experimentation.  When we experience gnosis, it gives us the impetus to try out that thing we're thinking about.  By doing so, we find out something new, and become wiser.

The difference between someone foolish and someone wise is, a wise person allows their foolishness to bridge change in the world, rather than to replace the world altogether.  They acknowledge that they don't know everything.

The Point of All This

As witches, we run into a lot of gnosis (YAY!), and as geekomancers we run into even more.  You will run into folks who do invocations to deities and "horse" around with them, who swear that Loki loves candy bars and Hekate is afraid of white cats.  You will meet people who speak to the Mother Starship, and who promise you that it is through the mystic light of the Pleides that they are able to see into your future and divine your fate.

And all over the place, you will meet people who want to whisper their pet theories to you, share their little hidden gems of gnosis.  Like how the American government is conspiring to hide evidence of unicorns, or how fairies have been secretly involved in the gambling industry.  Or how Yahweh was actually an alien, or what have you.

In gaming circles, we run into this a lot.  The most dreaded words ever whispered amongst gamers are "let me tell you about my character."  Well, maybe not the most dreaded, but pretty close.

What they mean is, "let me waste your time by talking about me and how clever I am and how awesome this is and how amazed you should be."

In other words, these words trigger a "geek out."

Geeks are incredibly passionate about their geekdoms- whether it be collecting baseball cards or fixing cars or reading slash fanfiction on the internet.  A geek is defined by their absolute passion for a subject, and their single-minded fixation upon said subject.  The reason geeks have such a bad rap is because these kinds of obsessions are socially abrasive, and they tend to overwhelm non-obsessed people when said people are exposed to a "geek out."

And yet... they are part of the human experience, part of being human.  We all have things like this that we are passionate and obsessive about.  Some are socially acceptable topics, others are socially awkward ones.

The thing is, our passion doesn't make us right.  It makes us passionate.  That passion would be better spent on creating positive change, rather than in trying to use it to reinforce how "right" we are.

This is a great reason for why I practice geekomancy.  That passion has to go somewhere, and it's one of the greatest things about being alive.  Since my passion is about things like roleplaying games and fiction novels, and since I'd rather not be insane with no hold on reality, I turn that passion into a creative push.  I use it to fuel my practice.  I use it for magic, and I change the world with it, to suit my inner vision.

For all of you out there who are "geeking out" about something, whether it's your god or your Golden Snitch: try using that passion to write a spell or develop a new divination spread.  Let your gnosis speak through you and inspire the world to become better.

That's the point of magic, after all.

Comments?  Feel free to ask questions or leave your opinions below!

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S. Rune Emerson has been practicing witchcraft and sorcery since the early 90's, and has been teaching since 2004. He is the founder of the Risting Tradition of American Witchcraft, which is a large title for a small local tradition based in Northern Nevada. He also heads a coven tradition called the Cabal of Nocturne, and works as a diviner at Pathways Spirit, a metaphysical shop in Reno. He likes to describe his life as "extraordinarily simple." He is fond of observing that magic as a profession is the somewhat honest alternative to those of the same mindset as criminals- smart, lazy, and prone towards thinking outside the box, often in areas of questionable morality. He believes in a strong standard of accountability in magical practice, and has very strict ethics. He's also very opinionated about nearly everything.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 14 January 2014

    Enjoyed this a lot, Rune - especially the repeated maxim that "The problem with gnosis is, it's not truth. It's not meant to explain the universe. It's not meant to tell us what we didn't know. It's meant to inspire us towards deeper understanding, not replace understanding." I also applaud your "The thing is, our passion doesn't make us right. It makes us passionate. That passion would be better spent on creating positive change, rather than in trying to use it to reinforce how "right" we are." Excellent insights.

    In my college days, the fantasy world that many of us believed must have really happened was the Middle Earth of JRR Tolkien. Peter Jackson's trilogy could not have been made, but for Tolkien geeks like us. As with the best science fiction, deep universal truths are tapped by such genius writers. JK Rowling is a modern example.

    There are people who pray to the Lady Elbereth - and that seems to work, too!

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Wednesday, 15 January 2014

    Oh, absolutely! I've got a few Tumblr friends who work with the Tolkien mythos as part of their practice. I'm a big fan of their work!

    For myself, I prefer geekdoms that were central to my own childhood, which Tolkien unfortunately only had a backseat in. I tend toward working with novels and comics I used to read, and video games I used to play. They're less approachable by the masses, but they're still fun.

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