by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
I love how popular Witchcraft has become. We are everywhere. The world needs more magick, so this adds to the magickal potential for change and growth all over the world. And I love how much is available to Witches today. For those of us who remember days past—of going to the local small bookstore and finding ten to twenty books under the occult section in the way back, or having to go someplace often fairly bleak to find an old-world occult store that came with a little thrill of illicit danger as you were bound to encounter unusual people, objects, and materials—the level of access is tremendous. There are some drawbacks due to the fact the baseline community hasn’t all read the same twenty books. Whether we loved one or hated it, we had a baseline awareness. And we had the shared experience of seeking out the occult apothecary or looking for a group or open circle listing on its bulletin board.
The internet opened it up first, with pioneers such as Witchvox.com, the Witch’s Voice, allowing you to find more resources than ever before. That boom of the 90’s Witchcraft eventually dipped, and we fell out of fashion, but now we find ourselves in a new boom, and the mark of this boom is a lot of diverse experiences and not the same baseline. There are a ton of more wonderful, deep books and far more flavors and styles of introductory books. There are arcane hardcover special editions and profound blog posts, and taking it outside of the written word, video and audio in various forms of podcasts and broadcasts. It can be a full-time job just trying to take a portion of it all in and process it in the context of your own practice.
One of the drawbacks to it all—which I think has always been there but becomes magnified when everything is magnified—is the desire to be spoon fed, to idol worship, and to be told what to do. The great danger in the growing magickal community today is walking that fine line between inspiration and authority.
In any serious art or science, there are principles, techniques, histories, and a legacy passed, with the hope that the next generation takes it further. Sometimes a generation will build upon what came before, and other times, they will deconstruct and build again, but with the clarity of such a legacy.
When primarily framed in a social context, whether online or in-person, there is a tendency to lose the context of such instructions, and everything becomes a directive. We currently live in a world, particularly online, where everyone is telling everyone else what to think, say, and do often without any context.
Some people embrace it because they want to learn. Some embrace it because they want to emulate the public figure or teacher. If they admire or idolize someone, they will adopt their views wholeheartedly, without always considering other perspectives. When learning, you might have to adopt a paradigm to learn a technique, but once the training is over, you have to evaluate how that technique and paradigm are going to work for you in your own personal perspective of magick. Others embrace it because they want to be told what to do, even though if you said that to them, they would vehemently deny it. Many people leave a religion that has told them what to do, rejecting those tenets, and seek to replace it with a religion that will also tell them what to do, but which they can agree with. They are looking for the safety of the container, the guidance of the structure.
I’m sorry to say that we live in an age where all these social, familial, and religious containers are dissolving. The rules of what is “right” won’t be the container, and we’ll have to make hard choices in the context of our personal lives and ethics. We have to determine what is “right” for us, in the context of our communities. With this tendency comes the segment of community that seeks to bend occult magickal traditions to conform to their expectations, setting up established right-wrong dichotomies for the group to follow, inevitably leading to dogmatic and militant interpretations of what should be open-ended, esoteric truths.
Most rebel against it. Don’t tell me what to do, they say. I often fall under this category myself. Though one must be aware of the difference between “don’t tell me what to do” versus “now I am going to tell you what to do, what is right, what is correct.” It’s a natural response to being told what you can and cannot do, but it just reverses the same bad dynamic. We see the opposition vehemently in online spaces where people battle over the age-old questions about whether Witchcraft is or isn’t a religion; if curses are or are not acceptable; if gender in magick is essential or outdated; if cultures should be mixed or kept separate; who has the right to practice or prohibit a practice; and if operative magick is real or just psychology with props. Those same arguments have been making the rounds in past Pagan meet-ups, book clubs, bar moots, coffee shops, fire circles, and covensteads. Each generation tackles them, and no one comes to consensus! Thank the gods for that! For it is in the space between where we find our way. The angst of such arguments could be easily diffused if prefaced with the phrase “for me” or “in my experience,” but the earlier practitioner with a great need for validation from others or a need to be “right” will start with the default assumption of “for everyone.” The experienced practitioner doesn’t need to be right and might even challenge the idea of what is right.
Despite many people’s ire with both Thelema and Wicca, the concepts of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” and “An it harm none do what ye will” were baseline concepts in the discussions and learning of personal agency and responsibility in times past. Yet both traditions have a lot of material to learn, with techniques, traditions, and customs that might seem restrictive. So in that seeming paradox, there is the balance between structure and exploration, tradition and innovation.
Sometimes we mistake observation with experience. While I do believe in the mystical quantum model that the observer affects the outcome of really all things, passive observation can be great for learning certain things, but if it prohibits the actual doing of something, you should break free, or at the very least supplement your practice. Watching someone pull daily cards for “everyone” is not the same as pulling your own cards. Use videos and articles about draws to help learn the cards and how to read them, but also pull your own and apply it to your life. The same with astrological posts. They are like reading your horoscope in the newspaper in days past, fun prompts to keep in mind, but don’t mistake it for being an astrologer. I do a lot of rituals and classes online these days, something I was never sure I would do, but the key for me has been in having people participate, not just observe. Watch to learn, but fully engage whenever possible, and use it to inspire, to be a springboard for your own work. Don’t wait for the “expert” to do it, because in the doing of it, you learn how to be your own authority, at least of your own experience.
Occult leadership is somewhat of an oxymoron, with the nature of occultism as the unseen empowerment, and I say that as the ostensible leader of an occult organization. The point is to embody principles, lead by example, provide a container and teachings, but not tell people what to think, say, or do. We had the start of a recent community discussion about how we are not a values-led community, as other organizations and churches might describe themselves. We embrace the magickal teachings of the virtues (for despite some people’s beliefs, Christian ideas of virtue are really rooted in ancient Pagan philosophies), but each system of virtue is a lens for understanding and evaluating your own behavior, not a command for individuals or communities. We look at virtues in the occult system of the elements, the planets, the mysteries of the Wheel of the Year, the sephiroth of the Tree of Life, the zodiac, and the virtues embodied in The Charge of the Goddess. Different virtues “unlock” as you progress upon the path, their mystery deepening as you expand your own consciousness. You cannot mandate their embodiment in an individual; you can only give the space for someone to consciously embody it. What virtue is the focus at one point on the path changes at another.
Occult traditions, particularly Witchcraft, embody the concept of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. We teach from that perspective, not only the biological and environmental, but all the way to the patterns of consciousness in the Divine Mind, in the roots of Pagan Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophies. Likewise, Witchcraft and occultism embody the concepts of the individual, our uniqueness, our will and personal liberty. The mystery is in the squaring of the circle between these two concepts. This is really the crux of the challenge of the new aeon, the Age of Aquarius. Aquarius is ruled by the old ruler of Saturn, boundaries, and the new ruler of Uranus, freedom. They are the orthodox and unorthodox of our planetary powers.
The mystery is in how you resolve that paradox, over and over and over again. Teachers, leaders, and community can help you in that process, but beware anyone who gives you the directive of how you should resolve it, of how you should act, think, or speak outside of a specific context, such as a class or public ritual. Beware anyone who feels confident enough in their wisdom to guide you wholeheartedly in these aspects of life rather than provide support for you to figure it out.
The intention is that when you find your will, you will make the best decision with the wisdom of your soul guiding you, as we each have a part of play in the outer worlds, and my role is not your role, nor is your role mine. That is one of the reasons why while magickal people may support causes, they don’t tell you who to vote for in elections or how to support a cause. If you are aligned with your own will, that should be clear to you. A magickal leader shouldn’t be the one to prioritize action for you or even curate information if there is no expertise on the topic. A leader can share what they are doing, or what is important to them, and let it inspire others, but they cannot demand or require anything of others, regardless of how frustrating one might feel when you think someone is making the “wrong” choice. That is part of the process too. The beliefs that inform my actions today required a lot of my own process and mistakes to get here. While I might guide others, I can’t prevent their mistakes by guiding them on the course of my path and line of reasoning. They must come to it through the virtue of their own work and process. If they ask me, that is great, but if they don’t, then it’s not up to me to convince. Zen Buddhists teach the dharma that must be defended is not the true dharma, the true teaching. When caught up in something important for you, it can be easy to feel that everyone else around you should drop everything to join you, but that is not realistic, not as an occultist or in any aspect of life.
There is a little bit of the parental model in forms of magickal society, even though we try to emphasize the sister-brother-otherhood of it all. Like a parent with more experiences, a teacher has to let a student or initiate go through a learning process, often to the dismay of the teacher, and simply hold the space for it all to unfold and trust in the process. If either party on each side of this dynamic is advocating violence, oppression, or harm, that enters into a very different dynamic than disagreement on a specific action or policy. New boundaries might be drawn in the relationship, just as they could in a more traditional family dynamic. In these times, the upswell of violence, suppression, and oppression can make such situations harder to navigate, and it can be both easy to ignore dangers or to erroneously assume that all who disagree with you are dangerous and violent.
And this is not to say magick and politics don’t mix, as there is a rich history of like-minded magicians and Witches gathering to seek justice and offer protection. Politics is ultimately of the people, much like magick. To coerce or proselytize to our cause—or if a group is open and public, to make it a requirement—defeats the point and reduces the effectiveness of such magick. It must be the will of those gathered to do the work.
The quest, individually and collectively, is part of the process. We are told about the quests and the myths by those who have come before us, who are the keepers of traditions and teachings. We are shown the process by example in the lives of those same keepers, in the moments of formal education or in the living moments of ritual and ceremony. And we must be inspired by them, experience them, and integrate them, so we in turn can be keepers of the traditions and teachings and pass them onward. Yet the process never ends. Witchcraft, magick, and mystery are alchemical processes that never end.