Passing the Torch, Spilling the Cup, and Weaving the New

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Torch photo by by Kelly L from Pexels | Wine Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels | Weaving Photo Nickolas Nikolic on Unsplash

Traditions evolve through the living practice of them. They adapt with the people who love them, in groups or alone, and those who fail to change will also fail to meet the needs of their people and will either calcify into dogma or wither and fade. Some traditions are recorded and revived by others at a later date, but many just disappear when the group or practitioner no longer holds to them.

Traditions are not opinions. Opinions can be rooted in traditions, but they can also be untethered from actual experience. Academic opinions carry one kind of weight. Life experience with a magickal mystery carries another. The two combined can be really helpful. If they are separated, I tend to favor the voice of wisdom and experience over the voice of knowledge alone.

There are many opinions, especially those offered from the safety of online spaces, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, say, name, or believe. People will be quick to say “this is true or right” and forget the caveat “for me” or “true and right for me and the group with whom I practice.” Things also might not be true for you. If you are offering to show another idea or perspective—or perhaps like me, you want to know all the folklore and techniques even though you know you can’t know it all, as the true knowing is in the doing and living—you’ll never turn down a bit of lore or wisdom, adding it to your own stew to see if it congeals with something you already know and do. Different points of view can bring insight.

Traditions are living things and travel from one person to another. There is a legacy passed nor just of technique or poetry, but of paradigm, orientation, and mystery. You receive an inheritance from teachers and traditions. I learned from some elders that it is a mystery of the torch and cup. You pass the light which must be tended as a living thing. It illuminates and inspires. By its light you can see and understand what is being added or changed. The oft-quoted Gustav Mahler taught, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Don’t mistake one for the other.

The cup is a body of knowledge we must be careful not to spill because we must pass at least some of what we were given by our teachers to the next generation; ideally the cup will get a little fuller with each pass. Some drink of the cup and do not refill it before passing it, either holding knowledge to be “better” than those who come after or keeping it as a secret. This results in each generation being more uneducated than the previous, at least to specific teachings and the quest to fill the void with other things. A true teacher should wish that their students surpass them and therefore shares generously. At times we might hold back if prerequisite knowledge or experience is not yet there, but we do so out of a sense of their safety or to encourage their ability to seek, but not to be a miser hoarding information.

Things will change. Some will be conscious decisions. Others will organically evolve. New traditions will be seeded from the past. In many ways we are not handed a torch or a cup, but a thread. Each teacher and mentor passes a thread, and we weave our own to perhaps pass to another. Ideally the thin threads re-spun from the occult and Neopagan revivals are being fortified with more academic knowledge, but they must be lived. It’s easy with new academic knowledge to want to wipe it clean, tear it down, and start fresh—and some will—but I’ve found life to be a bit too messy for that, and that’s good, as life in a “nature” religion should get down in the dirt and be messy. Today many will claim that no thread, torch, or cup was passed to them, but often there will be key books and now even online presences that do much the same today through in-person groups, teachers, and mentors.

Things of the modern era gain a momentum in the living, for even though they are recent traditions, they came about to speak to the needs of the people. Discarding them without deeper reflection disrespects our teachers of the recent past, without whom many of us would not have access to what we do today in the same way.

I think of the annual controversies of the Sabbat names, with 2021 having fierce online drama about Mabon vs. the Autumnal Equinox. We have it also around Ostara/Vernal Equinox, and Litha/Summer Solstice. It’s true the name Mabon was started by the American practitioner and author Aidan Kelly in 1974. Yet the first strands of tradition I was passed, by my first few mentors and teachers, always used Mabon for the Autumnal Equinox. I get it. Our cobbled-together Wheel of the Year has some inelegancies woven in the beauty of it, like so much organic folklore: four Gaelic names for fire festivals, though one is often traded for the Saxon Lammas; a Midsummer, but the Midwinter is more often called Yule as astronomical seasons don’t match these folkloric mid-points but start the seasons; and equinoxes that are more academic Latin than British folkloric in the words “vernal” and “autumnal.” There is an urge to make it flow better, and as a living tradition, different approaches were taken, and some grew popular. Drawing from mismatched myth, modern Witches and Neopagans crafted a meta-narrative about the wheel as a whole and illustrated it with classic mythic examples. The Goddess of Light and Spring is expressed by Bridget at Imbolc, but most versions of the Wheel don’t have Bridget specifically throughout the whole wheel. The Goddess changes faces as does the God. Modern traditions, like the Temple of Witchcraft, are redefining it in the context of new godforms and myths rooted in the old.

The name Mabon disliked by so many as having nothing to historically do with the equinoxes actually casts a powerful bit of magick upon us all who contemplate it. Mabon opens the gate to mystery, for Mabon himself is a mystery. A whole myth cycle—the Mabinogi or Latinized as The Mabinogion—is named for him, yet none of the four branches are really about him. One story exists, but the themes of that story show up throughout the Mabinogi—mothers and children; the Otherworld; being lost, hidden, or imprisoned; and growing older. In fact those themes are cross-cultural and directly speak to the greater meta-narrative of the whole wheel’s regenerative mystery. Where names of the summer solstice are often accepted as they are—the name Litha generates little other than a nod perhaps to megalithic structures believed to align with the solstices—Mabon, when seriously contemplated and studied, opens a whole world for us, even if our desire is not Welsh, or even Celtic. Complaints and ire against those who phonetically say May-bon rather than the more traditional and “correct” Ma-bin must also be apoplectic over changes in the names of figures such as Odin, Othin, Wotan, Woden, Wodan, Wuodan, Wuotan, Wōđanaz, and of course Mr. Wednesday over the span of years and regions. Or one can realize things change, and we are witnessing a living current of tradition adapting to region, dialect, and accent. The American tradition of Mabon has been imported back into the British Isles.

The birthplace for modern Neopaganism in the English-speaking world comes to us from the British Isles, with its fabulous mix of mystery of the Neolithic mound and megalithic builders, all of the British Isle Celts linking back across Europe to the Indus Valley, the Romans, and their ties to the Greeks and the Saxons, and their ties to all of the Teutonic, and modern England’s connections with Spiritualism and Theosophy even though both were founded in the United States, and their modern connections to—with all their issues of colonization—Egypt, India, and Asia. From here the currents passed to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, mainland Europe, Africa, and further abroad now, with practitioners of Wicca, the mystery tradition we associated with Western Occultism, in India, China, and Southeast Asia. People all over the world, with a general surface understanding of Irish Samhain and Beltane traditions, have inherited a modern Samhain thread, and are crafting their own traditions rooted in their own land and language, many through the lens of American Halloween. It’s not unlike my own celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi in a simple way, with my overall historic understanding of more traditional festivals. It shares the sentiment to celebrate the spirit of the elephant-headed god whom I love, but takes place outside of a traditional Vedic context. And Ganesh doesn’t seem to mind. I like to think he appreciates and accepts all offerings.

As these traditions are practiced, who knows how they will grow with the people in ten, fifty, and one hundred years? What we inherited in the rich and fertile proto-mix of the Paganism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s allows us to have these conversations. Are they perfect? No. Today, with access to everything, we keep expecting a perfect and congruent tradition where all the parts fit and have an internal timelessness to them. I know that speaking for myself, that was the eternal quest with each of my teachers and traditions. There must be more! The mystery must go deeper! And there is, and it did, but it was messy. I never found the perfect fit, and all that I’ve created has been wonderful, challenging, and messy to my sense of order. One need only to look at any religion or myth and find it’s messy. The Bible? A mess of stories that were not necessarily made to go together, obviously drawing upon other Mesopotamian myths now in the monotheistic context. The Egyptians? Different tales in different temples. Who created the world? Depends on when and where you are. The Greeks? Their written records, assumed to be drawn from oral traditions, all disagree in details and philosophy. Is there a difference between the outer forms of the temples and cults and the inner forms of the mystery schools? Probably. It’s easy to dismiss things as muddled or simplistic because we live outside of their original setting, life experience, and cultural context. There might be an underlying universal wisdom, and I wholeheartedly agree with that, but in manifestations, it is all about the regional influences that shift in time and space. Ideas migrate with their people, and like people, change over time. Some settle down and some keep traveling. And some just disappear. It’s hard for us to see it today, as we are in the mix of these processes now, and we’d like to look at them from the lens of a far-off time when things have settled, not when they are morphing and mutating all around us. Most won’t endure. Look to what has longevity already, even if it’s not your cup of tea.

If we take these myths as literal truth, then the mythic differences bring us into madness and dogma, something as magickal people we should seek to avoid through our ability to hold two truths, the mythic and the academic. Tibetan Buddhists can have the theology-mythology that Tibet has always been a Buddhist nation founded from antiquity by Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa, who was the earlier incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, giving rise to the idea that Tibet has always been guided by the bodhisattva of the Buddhist tradition. Historical research reveals that Buddhism as a coherent philosophy made it to Tibet in the 6th Century. Prior to that it was the indigenous Tibetan spiritual and magical practices as found in Bon, which has been adopted into later forms of Buddhism, but still has its own individual practices. Which view of history is right? It depends on what you are seeking. All of our traditions have mythic truth and academic truth. The Dali Lama can acknowledge both and have no dissonance in understanding these two different levels of truth simultaneously. Neopagans struggle with it. There is a teaching to the mythic ideas of an ancient lineage and pedigree, to the medieval Witch and the Burning Times, that confers a connection and plays a role in the magickal initiation process. But there is also the need for academic research to correct erroneous facts while not dismissing entirely the evolution of folklore and mythos. We must work to hold the two truths individually and as part of a community that can hold them as well, weaving them together when necessary and holding them separate as needed.

If we seek any form of a greater “big tent” Pagan community for support and shared resources—and honestly, simply for fellowship with like-minded, but not same minded—we must be okay with our shared histories and webs of practice. There is a time to see the shared collective and a time to express what is specific to our practice and to be accepting of differences in those times, to see what is right “for us” and not for everyone while also not denying the collective. There are times and places where people gather from all over, and those core themes carry, and there are times for the regional variations, where you might recognize similarity, but also huge differences. Today it’s hard to see those differences as regional due to the ease of travel by car and plane. It’s not so much the differences between the counties next to you, but between groups around the world, and now, due to the internet, there are connections in every area, with particular paradigms not rooted in a regional history in the same way. The world is wide open. It’s a blessing and a curse.

There will be times when we pass a torch to a small group of people in our inner circles, and other times when we hold the light aloft to share with all. There will be times when we pass the cup at a closed circle, and other times when we pour freely for our fellows. And there are times when we are weaving for ourselves, weaving for our people, and weaving for the entire world. All are needed. All our necessary. One does not invalidate the other.

Temple of Witchcraft