The Traditional and the Modern

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

A traditional house at Christmastime next to a modern apartment complex at night

“Traditional” Photo by cottonbro and “Modern” Photo by Aleksandar, both from Pexels

For a queer polyamorous Witch, some would consider me pretty traditional. And as a queer polyamorous Witch, most people would not. The truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. Both are true, and neither is true. That is my truth.

I’m traditional because I believe in roots. I believe in a fidelity to roots, to traditions and philosophies that embody timeless truths. I think the past helps us orient ourselves to the present and create a future. My family on both sides were immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. My Polish side of the family let go of more of their customs in an effort to be more American, and while more financially successful, they had a very hard time with the family dynamic. My Italian side of the family clung to Italian traditions, customs, and language, and that Old World influence was transmitted to me through their loving presence. I soon realized living in the suburbs that my sense of manners and honor was different from my friends and peers who didn’t have that immigrant influence. In many ways I’m an old romantic at heart and feel modern cynicism and selfishness are vices one cannot afford, much like the abuse of alcohol or tobacco. We might occasionally indulge, but it can’t be a lifestyle. While I don’t think one can be bound by traditions and history, ignoring them doesn’t serve. It’s like trying to ignore the ground you stand on because you wish to be miles away.

I am modern because I believe in embracing change. I believe in the right to break with traditions and customs that do not serve your greater good. If you have the impulse to create your own traditions and evolve new customs that address current situations and needs, then do so. I went into the arts professionally, foregoing the career path laid out by family and diverged even further by entering into Witchcraft as a profession. My queerness broke expectations of family, grandchildren, and what life is supposed to look like (not that queer people can’t have children, I simply didn’t want them), while expressing the essence of my traditional values in new ways for my new situation.

As a Witch I see the tension in our metaphysics, the divide between the traditionalist and the modern practitioner. We find it in Witchcraft and astrology particularly but also in other forms of Paganism and spirituality, such as the divides of hard polytheism to soft polytheism, humanism to metaphysics, and cultural reconstructionism to the occultism of the perennial philosophy. There is always a call to turn to past traditions and ways of being while simultaneously a call to explore something new and different. And this causes a tension, a strain, within both us and our communities.

Sometimes the tension can get vitriolic. I remember in my early years the tension between traditional initiatory Wicca and solitary-eclectic Wicca. Years later I came across a similar tension between modern astrologers and those harkening back to more traditional astrology, be it Renaissance Christian astrology or back to classic Greek astrology. There was tension between queer-accepting Pagan groups and queer-ostracizing groups.

We at the Temple hosted an event, and one of the speakers was a traditional Renaissance astrologer who was so disparaging of modern astrology in his presentation that I got complaints from the community and requests to never have him back. My own astrology teacher, Jan Brink, was a modern Western astrologer with a background as a psychology professor who also looked at the Vedic astrological principles, as she was a devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. It was with her teachings that the application of astrology finally became both spiritual and practical for me. I can feel traditional astrologers reading that shudder, but when one looks at the history of astrology, including the traditional, you’ll find a rich synthesis of Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and Persian influences, some transmissions with India, and eventually a process of coming in alignment with occult Christianity in Europe. The next step into modern occultism, Wicca, and the New Age, with its modern outer planets, is simply one link of a much larger chain, not an aberration. For better or worse, it’s the astrology of our time. One of the benefits of the resurgence of traditional astrology means that modern astrologers who were not exposed to such ideas, or who thought them archaic or fatalistic, can see them in a new light, and perhaps a better dialogue between the modern and the traditional can occur now.

I’ve learned a lot from traditional and modern astrological teachings, and while I have my own preferences of helpful techniques for my life, magick, and clients, I think we are all entitled to our own presences and practices, including the synthesis of what’s next.

The same tension can be found in other areas, such as politics, media, religion, the home, and the workplace. It’s not just metaphysics. Seeing it everywhere reveals an underlying mechanic of the natural order unfolding, which is the basis for this seeming problem: everything is changing. Nothing stays at rest for too long. If it does, it dies. Everything grows. Most growth is healthy or at least functional. Some growth is pathological and cancerous.

As things unfold and expand, a process that science tells us is happening in the greater universe, things grow to fill the space and to occupy their “place” in time as time is unfolding and expanding.

We sometimes seek the assuredness of the past, the certainty of what was. We can confuse past manifestations as the purity of the original pattern, of how things are “supposed to be.” Sometimes returning to the original pattern of something can give us a reset when too much superfluous or unhealthy growth has happened, simplifying things. Anyone running any kind of organization knows how bureaucracy can build up, but in those early days without it, everyone has questions on how something works, and the lack of known and established procedures means it’s unfair to someone.

Magicians understand this well if they are doing the work. It is the dynamic balance of creation and destruction, weaving and unraveling, the anabolic and the catabolic, mercy and severity. Both are absolutely necessary for anything to occur.

It is only when we get trapped in polarity thinking that we unbalance the dynamic. It becomes us versus them when we identify too strongly with one side. Yet this is what humans tend to do. We root for our team as part of a great drama unfolding. We find our sense of fun, adventure, and pride in winning over another, as it’s a simple visible metric recognized by all. When you have little accomplishments on your own, the group’s “win” becomes even more vital in the development of self-identity.

Imagine the astrology we would have today if the Babylonians had had no outside contact or had not allowed the transmission of their ideas to Greece and Egypt. Imagine if they had seen their astrology as traditional and pure and were against these new foreign astrologers. Perhaps some were. If they had prevailed, we wouldn’t have astrology as we know it today to argue the merits of traditional versus modern systems. Astrology is arguably one of the best-known exports of ancient Babylon. Even if you don’t believe in it, the average person is much more likely to know the name of one of the twelve signs, most likely their own Sun sign, than be able to point to where Babylon was in a map today or name any other contribution we remember. As an ancient civilization, greater Mesopotamia contributed to our concepts of time keeping, law, medicine, writing, architecture, and urbanization, but few people can cite specific examples.

When things build up to a point where it’s difficult for new action, the restriction decreases vitality and health. Things become stagnant. Stagnation eventually leads to either calcification or decay. Calcification seeks to preserve and keeps things tidy while decay potentially releases, but can make quite a mess and smell rather badly. Yet decay is the path that can lead to regeneration. Calcification leads to brittleness and breaking with little hope of change. Regeneration leads to innovation and innovation leads to a richness of practices. Those practices that inspire, aid, and provide meaning establish new traditions. And when traditions lose their meaning and become about blind compliance to form without function, a type of legalism that seeks the letter of the “law” and not the meaning and spirit of it, we get back to stagnation and begin the cycle once again.

Those seeking to only go back to the past traditions essentially feel it’s “done” and can only be eternally maintained. Things are no longer unfolding. Their ideal view of time is not linear, or even cyclical, but eternal.

Those seeking to let go of the past entirely can lack the vital transmission from the past. When we look at a lot of modern and avant-garde art, I can understand it better. A major critique of such art is that it feels soulless. It can be intense, but lacks an organic quality. Defying sacred proportions of the past, and often lacking in any traditional technique, it emphasizes separation and chaos. While this can be a necessary stage in the decay-regeneration cycle, reflecting how we might feel, one cannot live there indefinitely. And it often feels like what modern society is attempting, to balance precariously between decay and regeneration, struggling with the twin urges to go forward and go back. But we then get stuck. This is nothing new. It happens all the time throughout history. We feel it being here, and we perceive it differently than our ancestors due to the media of our time, but television, the phone, the printing press, the traveling troubadour, and the town crier all had the challenges of their time.

In every area, including magick, some people seek to speed the decay-regeneration cycle to repeat it quickly and constantly, as that is where we can feel the most vital, the most full of excitement and possibility and even danger if it should it go wrong. Here we feel we are making great contributions. We matter. We can push through the other steps in the cycle too quickly before they have a chance to do what they do, to return to decay-regeneration. Sometimes we feel the previous decay-regeneration cycle was not as pervasive as it could have been. We need to burn it all down to start over, leaving no vestige, but that does unmoor us from our past in unhelpful ways as well. If we are establishing new traditions, to truly be a tradition it must be passed from one generation to the next, if not several times. It is through that passing we can really see how it works in the long term. Sometimes the solution is not burning it down, but providing new options.

This is just as true with Witchcraft. We often seek to burn down the legacy we have been passed in an effort to find something older, more authentic, more powerful, or more traditional, in essence, more “real” and miss what is before us.

Though we often think of Witchcraft as the “Old Religion” it is strangely contemporary, as it meets the needs of its people while embodying an eternal wisdom. Yet the expression of that wisdom is always incomplete and always will be incomplete, for the universe, life, is ever unfolding through growth and change. If it were to reach completion, so would everything else, and we would be done. The real magick is in the perception of continuity across time and space of the whole, the thread that stretches to us and beyond into the future, changing yet connected to all that was, is, and ever shall be.

Ask yourself, “In what ways am I traditional?”

Ask yourself, “In what ways am I modern?”

Where is your balance point? Repeat the process of questioning yourself again with the polarity of building up and breaking down. What are you creating a pattern for, an architecture? What are you building? What are you breaking down and dismantling? Where is your balance point? What is your current mission? Are you stuck in a past pattern? Has your identity wrapped too firmly in the building or dismantling that you can’t switch the balance when needed? Are you doing so needlessly? How does this work serve you? How does it serve the greater good?

Repeat this process regularly to make sure you are in better touch with these twin forces, and as a magickal being, can use them more clearly and deeply.

Temple of Witchcraft