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Three cheers for oral traditions, and two for texts

 Unlike Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions, modern NeoPaganism has no texts regarded as divinely inspired. Perhaps the closest for some is the Hermetica, a late Classical text supposedly dictated by Hermes Trismegistus, but parts of which are truly ancient. Most NeoPagans have never read it, nor does it play much role in our practice. To the best of my knowledge, the Hermetica has never been used to determine who is, or is not, a NeoPagan. Nor, to my knowledge, are equivalent texts found in other Pagan traditions, unless you include Hinduism, which is usually included in the Dharmic traditions.

The New Forest Coven,  with whom Gerald Gardner  circled,  called themselves Wican (with one ‘c.’) The earliest Wican Book of Shadows about which we know was filled with directions for rituals and spell casting. Just as important, according to Gardner, these original texts were  fragmentary. To flesh them out, Gardner and Doreen Valiente  added important parts to create the existing Gardnerian BOS. As some have observed, a BOS is much more like a ‘cookbook’ than a scripture.

Gardnerian Wicca appears ultimately rooted in spiritual and occult practices rooted in late Classical Neo-Platonism and Classical mystery religions.  Philosophical training was much different then than now. We get a clue when we learn that, important as his texts were, Plato twice wrote that he never published his most important teachings.  Aristotle studied in Plato’s academy for 20 years. Either Aristotle was pretty dense, or something else was going on than book learning. The classical Pagan philosophical academies had more in common with an ashram than a university, and inculcated ways of life more than philosophical doctrine. The most important Classical mystery religion, the Eleusinian Mysteries,  lasted well over 1000 years before Christian suppression. There was no sacred text, and personal experiences were central to the tradition. Scholars still are unsure what happened there.

Today, one can become a widely respected Third Degree Gardnerian Elder and have never read, nor thought much about, Plato, let alone Plotinus, Iamblichus, or other NeoPlatonic philosophers. A person enters a traditional Wiccan path not by reading something, but by doing something: ideally attending Sabbats and an outer court training group for a year and a day. Only then was part of a Book of Shadows bestowed on them during their first initiation. Nor is book-learning required for a Second or Third degree initiation, beyond knowledge of their BOS. To be sure, many covens now require prospective initiates to read some books, but this requirement is not central to the Gardnerian initiation process. To my mind, most of this reading substitutes for our not living in a Pagan culture. (My favorite initial book for this kind of thing is Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do,  but whether someone read it or not is irrelevant regarding their skills as a Witch.)

So far as we know, something like this holds, for many other NeoPagan traditions, as well as most forms of Classical Paganism, Native American Paganism, Siberian shamanism, African diasporic traditions, the Naxi religion of people bordering SE Tibet, Shinto, and most other loosely defined Pagan traditions.

Why the lack of interest?

Why did the Pagan world apparently de-emphasize or reject sacred texts as central to their practice? In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates recounts a story describing how the god Thoth offered a series of inventions to the king of Egypt:

. . . when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “. . .  you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, . . .  are not wise, but only appear wise.”

These observations touch on written words’ inability to adequately instruct any skill that is primarily experiential. You cannot learn to ride a bicycle by reading instructions. You must try to ride, often repeatedly, before you are competent. How much more true is this for experiential spiritual traditions!

For example, reading a script during an invocation focuses your mind on the printed words. When you know the script so well that it comes to awareness whenever needed, your mind can ‘reach out’ to the Powers invoked. Immersion in a practice gradually builds up the skills, habits of mind, and relationships with the spirit world, necessary to engage fully within it. Think of this as developing a working relationship with entities, and an ability to apply certain skills in ritual contexts. These relationships and skills cannot be acquired by reading a text.

To give a non-Wiccan example, for over six years I worked within a Brazilian healing group rooted in both West African and Brazilian Spiritist traditions.  Practicing it was as demanding as my getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley, but required no reading beyond learning what herbs were best for what purpose, and the directions for certain workings. However, following the directions led nowhere unless you had already participated repeatedly within the same or similar working. As our teacher said, he could impart everything he knew that could be put into words over a weekend, and that information would be useless.

Two cheers for texts

There is a down side to “book learning.” Socrates touched on it in the Phaedrus when he cautioned “every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled . . .  it has no power to protect or help itself.” Consider the history of Christians interpreting their Bible by analyzing its words and attempting to understand them when they conflict literally.  It is all too easy to get so captivated by words and discussing their possible meanings that we forget the deeper context those words exist to open us to. Often these are contexts in which words, at their best, only slightly describe.

But modern NeoPaganism’s history is rooted deeply in books. As one leading Pagan observed, “We are not the religion of the book, we are the religion of the library.” We had no oral tradition on which to build, although such traditions are now growing. Today we can add the internet. Books, wisely read, were central to many of our paths to Pagan practice.  But they could take us only so far, and then they might become a hindrance.

I, of all people, have no business demeaning books and quality material on the net, and they can get us started. The best of these sources help situate us historically, placing what we do in larger contexts, and give the reader a sense of what we do. Given the rarity of good teachers compared to the abundance of people wanting to learn, people often have little choice but to rely on books. But describing casting a circle is not at all like casting a circle.

Even so, reading encourages habits of thought that can get in the way of deeper learning.

Here in Taos I was recently at a meeting with people interested in learning some form of Wicca.  I had been invited by a friend trained largely in the Reclaiming tradition.  As he described his tradition to the attendees, I realized we could not teach a joint class because key images were different.  For example, he spoke of the Mother, Maid, and Crone, which are absent in the Gardnerian tradition. I would have described the Lord and Lady instead.

Please know that I am not saying one tradition is intrinsically superior to another. I have encountered deities within different traditions. There was another reason for my decision, illuminated by a question an attendee asked.

When I said I thought it best for us not to combine our teachings, a student objected. “Why can’t we learn both?” It was a good question. She was approaching learning Wicca the way we might approach studying liberalism and Marxism, where reading contrasting texts at the same time can be very useful. Doing so helps us discover key differences, similarities and perhaps new insights.

When we study different traditions simultaneously it is difficult not to think about the differences, and compare them, but when we compare one to another, we step back from both, and distance ourselves.  This is great for thinking, but not for doing. Practice requires our going beyond our intellectual mind.  This is why, when attending a ritual from within a different tradition I try to immerse myself in what is happening, without thinking about it. I’ll save thinking for afterwards.

For me, it is not particularly important whether someone studies Reclaiming, a British Traditional practice, or some other established NeoPagan tradition. But when doing so, study just one. Once you can practice a tradition, studying another can be good, because you’ll be able to experience both as practices, not texts.

The last coven I was in was remarkably eclectic. Some of us were Gardnerian, some from Church of All Worlds, some from Reclaiming, and another from a Family Tradition.  This would have been a recipe for ritual chaos, except that all of us had practiced for decades. Each knew how to “get there” from within their own practice. The words and ritual forms employed were secondary.  We could leave our comparing minds behind, and having done so, became part of a group that lasted for many years. If one of us got into our head, and compared, they contributed little or nothing to the group that evening. But mostly we did not. And our magick often worked very well.

This is why I think philosophy/theology such as what I write is secondary to actually engaging the Gods in ritual. On the other hand, it can be useful for putting those who elevate texts, and whatever theory they happen to like, in their place.



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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 17 January 2020

    About a month ago I got on Reddit. In one of the subreddits someone asked if there was a male counterpart to the Maiden, Mother, Crone thing. I remembered reading a reference book in the library about just such a thing but I couldn't remember the name of the book or the author. About a week later someone else on another subreddit mentioned the book I was thinking of. I ordered a copy from Barnes & Noble and it arrived in the mail today. The book is "Comparative Mythology" by Jaan Puhvel. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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