Skryclad: Clothed In Visions

Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.

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Paging Thoth & Athena

 

I read a lot of blogs, go to a lot of conferences and festivals, teach a lot of workshops, and have lively discussions with friends related to all things Pagan and Magickal. Although I can say that ease of access to ideas through the internet, bookstores, and Pagan and Magickal events has increased awareness of many social issues, ideologies, religious and theological perspectives, and the vast amount of minutia related Pagan culture and fads, there is an increasing percentage of the Pagan community that is magickally illiterate and innumerate.  I’m not saying that people are less serious, less devoted, or less committed to their path. Nor am I saying that the level of discourse has dropped, in fact in many ways it is much more sophisticated in exploring the development of Pagan culture. What I have noticed is that the technical end of things, magick theory, sacred sciences, and the like, are less well known. I've also noticed a trend towards focusing more exclusively on the lore and mythology of a specific people or a specific time at the expense of a generalized understanding of how magickal paths manifest in a variety of cultures and communities.

 

There has been an increase in the academic study of both historic and current Paganism, which I greatly appreciate, but much of that research is magickally illiterate and innumerate even when it is well done. The criteria for what is valid and what has merit in academic circles is often quite different than what would be valuable and applicable in magickal circles.  Also it seems to me that most of our pagan academics model their work on paradigms from the mainstream culture. I do understand the dilemma involved in trying to balance the need for acceptance by the broader academic community against the goal of creating our own sort of academic model. It is hard when “magical thinking” is used as a loaded term to describe irrational thinking when from a Pagan perspective it could mean thinking that includes an understanding of causality and synchronicity larger in scope than the shuttered limits of the mainstream.

 

 Let’s start with the basics. The capacity to read, to write, and to do arithmetic is considered essential to the foundations of learning, hence the many programs throughout the world to reduce illiteracy and innumeracy. There is no existing word that I am aware of in a Pagan/Magickal context that is analogous to the core capacities implied by literacy and numeracy so for the moment I am just adding the word magickal as a way of exploring the question. So what do I mean by what I am tentatively calling magickal literacy and numeracy? It is not as easy to define as reading, writing, and arithmetic. By extension, magickal literacy and numeracy involves an understanding of symbols (the equivalent of letters, numbers, etc.) and of grammar and rules of operation for the manipulation and measurement of subtle forces. Magickal literacy and numeracy also means that a person has a way to read, to reason, to understand, and to make comparisons between magickal concepts, practices, and experiences.  Integral to this is the capacity to analyze and to quantify what works, what doesn’t work, and why in rituals, operative magic, divination, and other similar practices.  Magickal literacy and numeracy are hard to separate from each other, but this last description leans more heavily into the idea of magickal numeracy. 

 

This kind of core capability would probably arise from a basic working knowledge of magick theory (laws of magick), metaphysics (philosophy of being and reality), trusted systems (Qabala, Astrology, Alchemy, etc.), and other related frameworks. This may be a good starting point from my perspective, but the next obstacle is in creating an agreeable curriculum. There are so many different approaches, schools, and systems that it becomes almost impossible for any one individual to have time to truly become conversant in more than a small sector of what is available. Moreover, the choices to be made and what is valuable to be included or excluded in such a curriculum would be determined by the sensibilities of the person’s starting point. There is also the predicament of finding adequate teachers for each of the topics that are included in such a curriculum. For many years, the rate at which new people have been entering into our communities far exceeds the rate at which adequate teachers can be trained so the challenge of finding teachers is significant.

 

 This particular blog post is meant to be the start of a conversation around these issues. I’m still working on understanding what I have observed in the last few decades in our community and I’m still in the process of formulating both questions and proposed solutions. It may be that there are no good solutions, and if that is the case then the focus may shift to reducing and mitigating harm. I am still hopeful that over the next several decades we will make progress. I also understand that we are not a monolithic community, we are more like an ecology of communities. Different communities will have these issues move through them at different times and in different ways as each reaches the developmental stage where they become relevant.  How much help we can be to each other hinges upon how much we actually know about each other and how much we hold as common ground.

 

 If we work hard and are fortunate, then perhaps we might be able to take things a step beyond simple magickal literacy and numeracy. Perhaps we can increase the range of what is considered common knowledge in a magically educated person. Let's say that there were an imaginary college for all things magickal. In that college you might major in Druidry, or Heathenry, or Thelema, or Wicca, etc.  By the way, this college is a thought experiment and not proposal. In addition to the courses that relate to your major, you would also take courses that are part of  general education. The general education courses allow exposure to a broad range of disciplines that provide context for your major and the capacity to communicate and to interact with those things that lie outside of your major field of study. By the way, I believe that sometimes our best insights into our major come from looking at it from outside using the perspective of another field. 

 

Those general education courses are really a subset of what corresponds to a liberal education. The goal of a liberal education is to empower people with the capacity to think and to understand and to adapt to a changing world. Today, that often means teaching a broad range of disciplines, multiple systems for knowing and analysis, and a grounding in ideas from both art and science. The origin of today’s concept of a liberal education evolved from the historical Artes Liberales with its Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), also known as the seven liberal arts.  Perhaps one way to begin the discussion of what would be included in a curriculum for a general education that provides or expands upon magickal literacy and numeracy could be started by having discussions about which seven systems you think are needed for clear magickal thinking. Lest you take me literally, I don’t necessarily think that it is seven systems. It is just useful to have parameters if you’re going to be doing brainstorming and exploring.

 

I may write another post about this topic in the next year if I get clearer and sharper on my analysis of this concern. If you’d like to engage in a conversation with me about this, please look me up on my website or on Facebook. I gave a talk at Spring Magick 2011 in Pennsylvania called “The Touchstone: Discerning Magickal Truths” that has material germane to this blog. You may listen to it or download it at this link.

 

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Ivo Domínguez, Jr. is a visionary, and a practitioner of a variety of esoteric disciplines who has been active in Wicca and the Pagan community since 1978. He serves as one of the Elders of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, a Wiccan syncretic tradition that draws inspiration from Astrology, Qabala, the Western Magickal Tradition and the folk religions of Europe. He is the author of Casting Sacred Space: The Core Of All Magickal Work; Spirit Speak: Knowing and Understanding Spirit Guides, Ancestors, Ghosts, Angels, and the Divine; Beneath the Skins with other books in the pipeline as well. He is also is one of the owners of Bell, Book, & Candle (www.bellbookandcandle.biz), Delaware's largest metaphysical shop.
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Comments

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    Your comparison to a liberal arts education gave me considerable opportunity for thought. For myself, I think of magic as an elective; interesting to round out my religious education, but not required for my metaphysical degree, as it were. Magic certainly does overlap heavily with some Pagan religions, but I have never considered it to be a core part of mine. In fact, the first time I attended an organized ritual, I thought the magical stuff was pretty cool, but wondered throughout if we were ever going to worship. I've since come to realize that, for some people, magic is a form of worship, but for me it's always been a hobby that is largely separate from my faith. I blog about it myself because it's quite popular among Pagans, but I don't think you should assume that it's a critical practice for all forms of Paganism.

  • Ivo Dominguez Jr
    Ivo Dominguez Jr Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    If you care about what ancient Pagans did, then you should care about magick. If you look at the various revivals of Paganism over the centuries, especially the last two, then it is clear that esotericism and magick are part of their core. While it is not necessary for every individual who is a Pagan to be a practitioner, a basic understanding of the principles that underlie physical reality and magickal operations is essential. Metaphysics without an understanding of occult and esoteric principles is nothing more than watered-down theology.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    I agree that there's value in understanding the principles underlying magic, I'm still not convinced that "esotericism and magic(k) are part of" every Pagan religion. Hellenismos, for one: there's a lot of evidence that the Hellenes used magic, but practicing magic and worshiping the gods were distinct activities, so much so that some modern practitioners believe that magic is anathema.

    I think it's like the relationship of calculus and engineering. It's good to know calculus to practice engineering, but engineering happened long before the concepts of calculus were articulated, and folks managed just fine. Nevertheless, a solid knowledge of the one makes you better at the other. However, one does not need to sit down and regularly work out equations in order to bring knowledge of calculus to an engineering problem, either. The two work well together, and are probably each better for the other, but their link is not even close to inextricable.

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    you're not alone in that observation. it's a subject I've often brought up in discussions over the past decades, and the reactions have for the most part been derogatory. The deficit becomes quite obvious every time, as just recently, mercury goes retro and "Pagandom" goes scurrying for cover. lol.
    engaging you in a conversation on this subject is tempting, but I have no vested interest in furthering "Modern Paganism".

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Interesting article. Some of the big questions in literacy theory and practice are: Who defines literacy? What's the agenda behind defining literacy? Who gets excluded from being "literate"? While these questions aren't necessarily central to what you are exploring, you may find them useful. Back in my academic days I actually did a fair amount of work around the literacy of occultism and its something which still interests me.

    I'd argue that there is a definite bias against magic in the Pagan community. I've seen it especially with how magic has become relegated to being an optional part of the Pagan experience, and sometimes perceived as something which will keep the mainstream culture from accepting Paganism. It concerns me greatly because I feel that divorcing magic from Paganism is taking a step in the wrong direction. I'll be watching what you write on this with keen interest, and likely writing a response as well.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 25 November 2013

    I'd argue that there is a definite bias against magic in the Pagan community. I've seen it especially with how magic has become relegated to being an optional part of the Pagan experience, and sometimes perceived as something which will keep the mainstream culture from accepting Paganism.
    As someone who has never been a Wiccan, I'll have to respectfully, completely disagree. There is no system of a "definite bias against magic in the Pagan community", at all. The assumed default for the pagan community is (Eclectic/Popular) Wicca, or some other form of magic. I can't post photos of little offerings I have around my house for various deities without several people asking what amounts to "what does this thing do for you? how does it help you magically? I want to try that, too, what intent should I charge it with?" Sometimes a variant of all three are asked by the same person, all of which completely miss the fact that I always present such photos as being an offering, a sacrifice, something that is not at all for me, but instead for the gods I have offered these items to, anything I may "get" as a result of making these offerings is inconsequential and not my goal, for my goal is, instead, to foster a harmonious relationship with the gods. Fostering a harmonious relationship with the gods is barely a factor to most Wiccanate pagans I have known, and I'm guessing high on that --the default position for a majority of pagans *is* to work with magic, as that is the ostensible "default" starting point in modern paganism, and thus it is a privileged position to take, and if there is any perception of "bias" against that privileged position, at most it is a bias held by a handful of individuals who fall well outside the default position, rendering their bias essentially well-removed from a potential for systematic bias, and more as the frustrated outcry of a minority population struggling to be heard.

    By attempting to paint this as an implicitly systematic bias within the pagan community, you frankly betray your own privilege by letting it show. By suggesting that an aversion to magic as a means of gaining mainstream acceptance, I counter this with suggesting that you are either grossly misunderstanding what people have said, or you're building a straw man to argue against. By saying that those who do manage to avoid magic in their paganism are "taking a step in the wrong direction", I not only see your own privileged bias, but I dare say, I detect some notes of xenophobia, as well --after all, it's not how you do things, so clearly you think that it's "the wrong direction" for other people to take. That certainly seems to be what you're saying, anyway.

    While I certainly roll my eyes at other Hellenists who seem to think that nobody who was a "true Hellene" ever practised magic in the ancient days, in spite of mounds of evidence that magic was everywhere in spite of taboos in place by a few of the more popular philosophical schools, that doesn't mean that I think everyone in ancient Hellas was a well-versed magician (indeed, the evidence suggests most people seemed to employ others to do their magic, or at least bought little kits "that anyone could do" from a witch with a strong reputation for everything from herbal charms to throwing curses). Because there were only a handful of truly adept magicians in ancient Hellas, clearly the focus for everyone else's path does not in any way necessitate magic as a focal point. I don't condemn its practise, but I also think it's best left to a handful of specialists who others can employ as they need it.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Monday, 25 November 2013

    Hi Ruadhan,

    You could've made your point by simply writing paragraph one and three, without including paragraph two, where you choose to make some assumptions about where this comment is coming from and accuse me of being xenophobic. That certainly seems to be what you're saying, anyway.

    In fact, paragraph 3, along with Mr Hood's comment to me earlier is quite helpful in understanding why magic is an "optional" aspect in certain spiritual traditions.

    I also recognize that it must be quite frustrating to deal with people who ask questions, such as what you mentioned in paragraph one, without recognizing your spiritual background or practice but instead making assumptions based on their own practices.

    My comment came from experiences where I've had conversations with Wiccans (I'm not one either) who felt that magic was optional. It's also come from a couple of other interactions with who people who voluntarily identified themselves as Pagans at the time who made similar such comments. Perhaps, as you claim in paragraph 2, my comment betrays my privilege as a magician (never thought I'd get to claim that as a form of privilege). Fair enough, I'll accept that criticism, but my question to Mr. Hood and his response as well as some of my own musings on this article by Ivo also displays my willingness to consider alternative perspectives and recognize that my perspective isn't automatically right.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 26 November 2013

    No, I'm standing by the middle paragraph because, simply, you're the one who said that people "divorcing magic from Paganism" would be "taking a step in the wrong direction". I'm read that section over and over again, and I can't think of any other ways to take it than how I did. You really can't expect me to see someone who I feel is implicitly telling me I'm "taking a step in the wrong direction" because I have only the vaguest familiarity with magic[1], and then just sit on my hands and apologise?

    Perhaps, as you claim in paragraph 2, my comment betrays my privilege as a magician (never thought I'd get to claim that as a form of privilege).
    Within the pagan community (and the pagan community alone), exists an idiosyncratic hierarchal system of privilege --all subcultures have these, to varying extents. At the top tier of that tower are the Wiccanate (or Eclectic Neopaganism), then Neodruidry of ADF and/or "other magical paths" that may or may not include Traditional Wicca, and so on.... Recons aren't necessarily at the bottom (as much as some want to think we are...) but it's clear we're not a part of this "elite" group of the Wiccanate that something like 75% of the books and other media ostensibly by-and-for pagans cater to, nor are we a part of the one or two other castes of religions that get the next 20-23% and tend to share more in common with the Wiccanate than with recons like myself.

    1: unless you count divination --which may fall under broad definitions of "magic", but the way I practise is as a means of seeing possibilities, not as a way of [as many magic workers define magic] using my own intent and will to shape the situation[s] I aim to

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Tuesday, 26 November 2013

    Yeah, I'm not surprised you're making what basically amounts to a "tone argument".
    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument

    Good day.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Tuesday, 26 November 2013

    Rudahan,

    There are better ways to make your point, then to come in looking for a fight. William Hood's comment is a great example of someone saying, "What you're saying isn't representative of me and my practices and here's why". He made a similar point as you, but he didn't claim I was making fallacious arguments, and then hypocritically make one of his own (which seems to be a favorite tactic of yours).

    Maybe your intent wasn't to stir up a fight, but it came across that way to me and I know this is a surprise to you, but my perspective on the situation also counts. So here's what's going to happen from now on Rudahan...

    If you choose, from here on to argue in the way that you have, I won't respond to you. I will ignore your comments, and let my silence speak for me. There are better ways to make your point and I think you are smart enough to do it. And lest you claim I'm trying to silence you, I am not. I am asking you to argue better than you have done here. And I am telling you I will not participate if you choose to continue using the same tactics. I have better uses or my time than to have an online flame war with you.

  • William Anthony Hood
    William Anthony Hood Monday, 25 November 2013

    If you are using "Pagan" in such a way that it includes Heathenry, reconstructionists, and various other polytheists, then yes, magic most definitely *is* an optional part of Paganism. It has nothing to do with worry over acceptance by mainstream culture, it has to do with the fact that when you lump various different religions together, they aren't going to all value the same things. Period. If you want Paganism to only include religions that place magic as central, then Pagans need to stop dragging religions for whom magic is *not* central into the "Pagan umbrella." You can't have it both ways.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Monday, 25 November 2013

    Hi William,

    See my response to Ivo's post: http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Studies-Blogs/the-literacy-of-magic-pt-1.html

    I do recognize that there is a different valuation for magic in various different spiritual traditions and paths. It does make me wonder, though, if magical is optional, why even have it as part of a spiritual tradition? If it is optional, was magic even part of that spiritual tradition in the first place (optional, to me implies, it was not part of the spiritual tradition).

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 25 November 2013

    You seem to be treating this as an either/or situation, where people are either "for it" or "against it", that somehow because there are many paths outside the Wiccanate that treat magic as completely optional, that those paths somehow necessarily don't put value in magic. This is not a pluralistic view, and unfortunately, this seems to be where a lot of polytheists and "general neo-pagans" who seem overwhelmingly, ultimately, monistic; even those who stress that they are "duoistic" come across to true pluralists as possessing very black-and-white thinking.

    Think of it this way: You have a spice cabinet and mini-fridge of herbs. You go to make split pea soup, and the recipe you're using calls for a few herbs and some fresh ground pepper, but it does not call for rosemary or garlic, and you usually do not make it with rosemary or garlic. Now, as a pluralist, I might make it with rosemary and garlic today, but not next week, or I might usually add rosemary and garlic, but I might feel like leaving it out this time; it makes perfect sense to me that this is a logical way to go about my desire to both have split pea soup and to sometimes have a soup with garlic and rosemary. What you're saying, seems to me like you'd either a) never deviate from the recipe, no matter what your personal tastes (or those of your guests) might be, or b) that you'd spend far more time hunting down a recipe for soup, split-pea or something else, that contained all the exact spices and herbs you wanted to use. Just because the recipe doesn't say an ingredient is necessary doesn't mean that it can never be used in that recipe (of course, the analogy doesn't work quite as well with baking, due to the greater margin of error for substitutions, additions, or omissions, but hopefully my point is still clear).

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Monday, 25 November 2013

    I'm not treating it as an either/or situation, but rather seeking to understand the optional aspect of magic to a tradition. Mr. Hood's answer has been quite helpful in providing insight on the matter.

  • William Anthony Hood
    William Anthony Hood Monday, 25 November 2013

    I read your post earlier from the "related blogs" link, interesting post. As to your question, I'm going to answer for myself and my interpretation of my religion. First, one has to understand that Heathenry is a cultural movement with a religious/spiritual component, not the other way around. Therefore it covers various different practices, some that are central to Heathenry and some that aren't. Magic is one of the latter. It isn't at all necessary in order to practice Heathenry. However, there is a tradition of magical use in our historical antecedents. I think I agree with you that "optional" means "not part of." Even Heathen forms of magic aren't really "part of" the religion part of Heathenry. They're like a sub-tradition that adds to the core, if you've got it. Hhhmmm, let me put it like this: Heathenry is a broad term that is made up of parts, including areas like "cultural traditions," "religion and spirituality," and "magic." Various Heathens will interact with those different areas to different degrees, depending on the individual. Those individuals then come together to develop a group's thau and situ ("common law/values" and "customs/practices").

    The reason I describe magic as optional, then, is because the necessary & sufficient conditions of Heathenry (at least as I see it) are culture + religion/spirituality. In so much as it adds to a group, magic is good, but it isn't needed.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Monday, 25 November 2013

    Thanks for explaining. I like the clarity you provided and it's helpful for me in understanding your position.

    Taylor

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Monday, 25 November 2013

    I mostly agree with Mr Hood's comments. I was first introduced to Paganism through a magic-focused tradition, and as I spent some twenty years largely avoiding magic because I didn't care for the ethical implications of using it, I had a pretty diluted religious experience. Magic is part of some Pagan systems, parallel to others, and there are some very devout Pagans who eschew it completely. While I do dabble in magic now, and absolutely understand its value, my relationship with my gods has nothing to do with my magical literacy whatsoever.

    Where I don't entirely agree with Mr. Hood is about "dragging religions . . . into the Pagan umbrella." Yes, a lot of Wiccan and Wicca-focused practitioners tend to see the Pagan world as being homogenized (refer to http://thespiae.oddmodout.com/2013/11/08/pbp-2013-wiccanate-privilege/ for a more detailed look at this phenomenon), but there are no small number of us non-Wiccans who choose to call ourselves Pagan, and haven't been dragged anywhere by anyone.

    While the original post paints the situation with far too broad a brush, I appreciate how important it is for magic-centered traditions such as Wicca to promote a higher level of mastery in the subject.

  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy Monday, 25 November 2013

    Thanks for referencing my blog post in this discussion. I am glad to see that it does seem to ring true to the experiences of people who aren't necessarily on faceBook (oi theoi, the first day that was up on FB, let me tell you, Internet...)

  • William Anthony Hood
    William Anthony Hood Monday, 25 November 2013

    I understand that various individuals and groups who are not magic-centric do voluntarily consider themselves "Pagan," and there are also various individuals and groups who are not magic-centric who do not. My intent was not to say that all under the Pagan umbrella were dragged there, it was meant to point out the contradiction in claiming those traditions, *as a whole*, under Paganism and then proceeding to state a universal about Paganism that contradicts those traditions. If the Pagan community wants to respect people like yourself among their ranks, they need to refrain from speaking for you in ways you may not like. In addition, they need to respect folks like myself who see no utility in being under said umbrella and *definitely* don't want to be spoken for.

  • William Anthony Hood
    William Anthony Hood Monday, 25 November 2013

    This post is perfectly illustrative of why so many reject the term "Pagan" anymore. You're like an American architect bemoaning that not all Americans are "architecturally literate." Or, more apt, a Christian bemoaning that non-Christians aren't literate in soteriology. You're references to people "focusing more exclusively on the lore and mythology of a specific people or a specific time at the expense of a generalized understanding of how magickal paths manifest in a variety of cultures and communities" and you're reference to Heathenry show a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation.

    Heathens and others who focus in such a way are *practicing a different religion than you.* They hold different worldviews, motivations, goals, beliefs, and practices than you do. Heathenry would not be a major in a "magickal college": it isn't a "magickal path." And this is what such folks find so frustrating about Pagans: your inability, or unwillingess, to understand that we aren't all just branches from the same tree; we're different trees entirely, though we may be in the same forest. I don't pretend that Pagans need to understand the Germanic conception of honor, frith, and wyrd because those things are specific to my culture/religion. So don't pretend that Heathens need to understand "magical literacy." You aren't us, and we aren't you.

    As to historical cultures, contrary to modern witchcraft mythology, magickal practices were not central to, universally respected in, nor widely practiced in said cultures. Even magical practices that were valued and respected were the domain of specialists, not every person in a community. You're universalizing your own worldview and projecting it onto other cultures and people, then acting bewildered that everyone doesn't do the same. Please actually listen to those of us who are wildly different than you instead of continuing to stubbornly insist we're essentially the same and should have the same foundations. It just isn't the case.

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