Bardic, Shamanic, Ecstatic? (by Helix)

Bardic, Shamanic, Ecstatic: these are the three adjectives that introduce AndersonFaery.org at the top of every page. All three are commonly used by initiates to describe Anderson Faery witchcraft. What do they mean?

Bardic

Historically, a bard is a traveling poet who composed and recited epic poetry, usually while playing an instrument.  Over time, the term has loosened to include poets in general, with “THE Bard” often referring to William Shakespeare, a word artist of both poetry and prose.

Poetry, song, storytelling, and drama are ways in which a group performs its shared values. Our ancestors both entertained themselves and learned about who they were through group gatherings where stories and songs were shared around a fire. Many of the world’s religions continue these practices of singing and storytelling, though in the West they have become more structured. A visit to nearly any Christian church, for example, includes reading of scripture (much of which is narrative) and singing of hymns; similarly, historical and mythic narratives and traditional songs are key elements of most Jewish holidays.

Poetry and song have always been an important part of Faery Craft. Part of their importance is to retain knowledge of history, myths, and lore, an understanding of which connects Faery witches to the past and ties them together in relationship.  Gwydion Pendderwen, one of the Andersons’ first and most influential initiates, recorded two albums of music that celebrated nature spirituality, folk lifeways, and the Gods. He also penned liturgical pieces for use in private rituals. Faery witches continue to sing Gwydion’s songs and recite his poetry, both to connect with the ancestral traditions that Gwydion felt called to, and to connect with the memory of Gwydion himself.

Gwydion Pendderwyn
Gwydion Pendderwyn

Poetry was also a passion of the Andersons. In 1970, with Gwydion’s logistical support and Cora’s life savings, Victor published Thorns of the Blood Rose, a passionate book of poetry that led many future initiates to seek the Andersons out for teaching. Victor’s poetry celebrates the natural world, the Gods, and sexuality; but like those of Yeats, the great occult poet of the twentieth century, his poems are also densely layered with meaning and can act as keys to occult revelation. Victor’s poetry rewards the patient and careful reader who is willing to read and reread, recite and contemplate again and again.

Victor was adamant that the images in his poems were not intended metaphorically. Poetry is a way of expressing realities that cannot be captured by linear thought and plain speaking; it is a way of gesturing toward mysteries that are beyond our rational understanding, but that we can experience in our bodies as beings of flesh and spirit.

Cora was also a poet. Some of her simple, striking verse is included in her memoir Childhood Memories (now out of print, but a version of the book called Kitchen Witch is still available). When I met Cora near the end of her life, she spoke with great pride of the poetry that she and Victor had written. She clearly considered this creative work to be one of the great achievements of their lives.

Though not every Faery witch need be a poet themselves, Faery witchcraft cannot be worked without poetry. Poetry and song bind us together. Through them, we share our innermost dreams, longings, and desires; we connect to the ancestors and the Gods; and for those with ears to hear, we convey our most precious truths.

Shamanic

A shaman is a healer and spiritworker who is in service to their local community. On behalf of that community, the shaman seeks altered states of consciousness in order to communicate and negotiate with spirits. Shamanic practice may include the use of local plants to heal and work magic, as well as magical practices based on spirit relationships. Although the term “shaman” probably originally came from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia, in Western religious studies it is now used to describe this kind of spiritworking cross-culturally.

Image by David Revoy via Wikimedia Commons. Artwork for the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation (durian.blender.org).
Image by David Revoy via Wikimedia Commons. Artwork for the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation (durian.blender.org).

Faery witchcraft is worked in a container of beloved relationship. This includes relationship with one’s human community, but even more importantly, it includes the local plants, animals, streams, and hills in all their aspects (physical and spiritual), as well as the Gods who manifest through the land and through our flesh.

Third Road founder Francesca De Grandis wrote, “A healthy priest makes all things sound.” Faery witches seek harmonious relationship with the land and people where they live. We seek to be whole and balanced in ourselves so that our positive influence ripples outward through all we touch. At times, of course, seeking harmony may require conflict, as we are called to defend human or other-than-human beings in our community who are in danger. A witch’s action to restore harmony may take place in the human realm, in the newspapers in the courts; or it may take place in privacy, through magical intervention or one-on-one negotiation with humans or spirits. In any case, right relationship is the source of a witch’s power. A witch’s work involves constantly strengthening ties and setting boundaries—but our responsibilities are not just to the human community.

Serving in a shamanic role is not easy. The conflicting needs of humans and other-than-human beings can lead to difficult decisions, and as a result the witch may not always be appreciated or loved by other humans. When we serve as mediators between humans and spirits, between the wild world and what we speak of as “civilization,” we put ourselves outside of ordinary human society, and we may suffer for it—if not through persecution, then through being treated as an outsider or a fool. To serve as a shaman means having knowledge that others do not, and this state can be uncomfortable and isolating.  It is not a glamorous role, though the moments of beauty and connection it brings may be worth the pain.

Like the rest of our society, twenty-first-century Faery witches struggle with environmental damage and community erosion caused by the ways we have chosen to use technology. Some of us were lucky enough to be raised with a spiritual awareness of the land where we live; others, having grown up disconnected and rootless, must work hard to form the relationships that make a powerful witch. But without being integrated into a community of all types of beings—without, in other words, taking on a shamanic role—a Faery witch’s work is not complete.

Ecstatic

Ecstasy is a rapturous state of altered consciousness where the usual boundaries of the self are left behind. The original Greek term, ekstasis, translates as something like “standing outside oneself.” Ecstasy is a sensual, embodied, fleshly state; it is not one where we transcend the body. However, it is transcendent because in this state, our awareness of our individuality and our boundedness from other beings falls away. We transcend our everyday selves and experience communion: with other Selves, with the Gods, with God Herself.

Allowing ourselves to experience ecstasy can be a difficult and even frightening process. In order to freely let go of one’s ordinary everyday self, one must be comfortable with that self and know it well. Our society, however, often does not support individuals in forming a healthy, stable self. Mainstream society is full of casual boundary violations, especially of the bodies and selves of marginalized people, as well as complicated social expectations that may encourage inauthenticity or even be actively exploitative and damaging. If a person is struggling to build good boundaries and experience healthy relationships with other human beings, it is natural that they may cling to whatever sense of identity they have already built—in fact, it is probably healthy to do so!

Ecstatic experience loosens and breaks down individual identity. It may change small elements of our personalities, like preferred hobbies or tastes; or it may leave us questioning elements we thought were foundational and defining, like sexual orientation or professional calling. Ecstasy can be a joy so big it bursts the heart open, leaving pieces that no longer seem to fit neatly together. It offers us freedom, but at the cost of structure we may have come to depend on.

Image by Ryan Somma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cave painting, dance scene. Taken at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
Image by Ryan Somma via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cave painting, dance scene.
Taken at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Ecstasy is life force itself. If we are willing to let it flow through us undammed and be changed by the flood, our ability to contain that force expands. We become more powerful witches—but “power” rarely looks like what we imagine beforehand. There is no predicting where ecstasy will take you, or how it will leave you when its surging waters recede from the banks. Those who stay out of the way of the flood—either out of fear, or because they genuinely love themselves the way they are—are not unwise. But for Faery witches, there is no life without ecstasy. We embrace its risk, and its freedom.

Bardic. Shamanic. Ecstatic.

Faery.

Merlin’s Way: Apprenticeship and Faery Training (by Shimmer)

Among the core principles agreed to by the Anderson Faery initiates represented on this site is this statement:

We prefer to teach individually or in small groups. In all our teaching, direct personal contact between teacher and student is essential.

Witches are above all things practical. My preference for the apprentice method of teaching comes primarily from practical considerations.

In giving my views about this point, I need to underline at the outset that what follows very much reflects my personal experience and the guidelines I follow in my own work. Although we in this group have agreed to stand by these principles, each of us has different ideas about how to teach. Some of the differences are subtle, and others are dramatically different.

Both the apprentice method and the coven model are rooted in strong mythic, archetypal patterns that recur in many streams of magical teaching. For apprenticeship, one of the most familiar examples is the story cycle of Myrddin instructing the young Arthur. Images of the coven seem to echo the somewhat more mysterious circle of the Nine Maidens. (The Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Scottish play may have their origin in the legends of the Sacred Nine.) Madeleine L’Engle played with this latter archetype in her book A Wrinkle in Time and the ways in which the Three interacted with Meg on her journey. In some of the legendry around Myrddin (or Merlin)’s instruction of the boy Arthur, the child experiences shapeshifting into different animal forms. According to some, these experiences represent in symbolic form an apprentice’s journey through different phases–or processes–of Initiation and deepening realization. (A recent exploration of the apprenticeship archetype was offered in episode 3, “The Nightcomers,” of the second season of the series Penny Dreadful, featuring Patti Lupone’s brilliant performance as the Cut Wife.)

Teaching Faery brings with it many challenges. Even in the world of initiatory systems, it must be acknowledged that Faery—Wild Faery, as a dear Sister of the Art has called it—is in its own category. After many years of study, practice, and teaching, I have had to conclude that the Faery current truly has a mind of its own. I have known a number of cases where those who have not gone through the Initiation, or even had any formal training, have been touched with the Faery Gnosis. Some have even manifested the Faery Power. You are truly riding a bucking bronco if this happens to you. But some find great joy, beauty, and clarity in the Mystery of this untrammeled wave.

Each Teacher has to ask hirself the question: what are my goals in taking on the task of teaching an individual the Craft? Another of the shared Principles is that teaching is always with a view toward initiation, although there is no guarantee that every student will be initiated. Many of us say that we will only consider teaching a person who “smells like Faery” or “feels like kin.” In other words, the evaluation process involved in taking on a student is visceral, gut level, heavily involving the Fetch and thus, intensely physical. Witchcraft itself is an intensely physical Art, deeply rooted in the Body and hir Mysteries. So, we take on the teaching with the idea that the goal is Initiation. I would add that there are further goals I look towards beyond the point of Initiation–but this is ultimately a separate topic.

For a student to come through the long, difficult, painstaking journey to stand before the Gate requires shepherding through several phases. In the legends about Myrddin and Arthur, the wizard’s magic catalyzes the child’s experience of taking wing into the element of Air as an eagle. He dives into the Waters of a mighty river as a fish. He roams through the Earthy realm of the Forest as a young buck. And he may even have danced in the mystic Fires as a dazzling salamander.

On a less mythic level, a teacher needs to listen, observe, question, moderate, challenge, push, nurture, and remonstrate with the student at various moments. In some cases their lives will become deeply intertwined; in nearly every instance, there will be spaces, sometimes lengthy ones, where the teacher leaves the student to get on with things and make hir own way with the work in hand.

(My own late Teacher almost invariably spoke of himself as a tour guide. He liked to remind us that the map is not the terrain. And Faery is not “information.”)

Chiron and Achilles. Lithograph after J.B. Regnault. Public domain. Via Wellcome Images. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Chiron and Achilles. Lithograph after J.B. Regnault. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Chiron instructing Achilles. Lithograph after J.B. Regnault. Public domain. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. (CC-BY-4.0)

Willow Moon provides a nuanced appraisal of the work shared by a teacher and apprentice in his beautiful 2003 essay, “Is Feri an eclectic system or a Tradition?” (originally published in Witch Eye issue 8). Willow thoughtfully observes:

A personal communication or instruction on an ordinary subject would be conveyed by much more than words. There are facial expressions, tones of voice, cadence, gestures, designs, postures, pauses, etc. that make a complete packet of information along with the instructive words. How much more important is this non-verbal part of communication when trying to learn something as unusual as Feri? That is why I think Feri can only be learned by hanging out, sharing food, magics and stories with one’s teachers in a warm, caring manner.

Later in this article, Willow offers a valuable insight into Victor’s teaching methodology:

Even though Victor applied diverse methods to working and describing Feri, he was consistent in his approach and style. After listening to him teach for seven years, I concluded that although he talked about Feri in many different ways, they were congruent. His consistence lay in his emphasis on basic self-respect. Respect for the world, its places and its powers flows naturally from the spring of self-worth.

The magical techniques taught in Faery to bring the Triple Self into alignment (or harmonious convergence) are the foundation for true self respect and self realization. In this work, the true inner Reality of a human–sometimes expressed magically as the true Will–is brought into harmony with the outer lived experience. Cholla Soledad expresses this journey brilliantly and beautifully in her essay “Ecstasy and Transgression in the Faery Tradition” (Witch Eye ​7, 2003):

Commonly, the personality clouds the true desires of our souls. … For the most part, people have no idea of what they want. Ecstasy peels off those layers of societal conformity and the need to please others. What is revealed underneath is the soul and divine will. …. Feri witches practice aligning the three souls. In an ecstatic state, with an open heart, the soul is revealed in its true form. … Suddenly, what was hidden by expectations and good manners is revealed to the self, and we can know ourselves in our most innocent state. It is a state of grace in which we can truly be free. In that state, we recover and have compassion for the parts of ourselves we have rejected, and in that moment, all three souls are right within us. We become part of the pattern of God Herself.

In my own experience, it is the teacher’s job to mentor a student as safely and smoothly as possible through this process. Faery by definition isn’t safe. Perhaps no true practice of Witchcraft is. But as a teacher, I have to do what I can to guide the traveller through the most perilous streets and across the most sharply cracking ice. I have to shepherd her towards the next challenge brought by the Work, to the best of my ability. And this requires building relationship with the student in a manner most aptly characterized as the apprenticeship model. The coven model works well too; in some ways, it may be superior, since the tapestry of the student’s experience of the Art is woven by many hands and sung through many voices.

It all begins with what you decide is your goal, or sequence of goals, in teaching. My goals are to mentor the student towards initiation, to offer spiritual direction and what guidance I may have to give, and to witness the student coming into the full awareness of hir own Power, the complete realization of hir fully aligned Self, and the beautiful accomplishment of hir true Will.

Owning It: Autonomy, Accountability, and Liberty in Faery (by Moriquendi)

Those of us who identify as Faery share, among many other things, a statement of principles of conduct and affirmations about what the Tradition is, who can teach it, and how. One of those principles reads, “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.” The two clauses that make up this statement establish a balance between autonomy and accountability, where neither one trumps the other, but are seen as part of an integral ethical whole.

I’ve heard it said that, unlike some forms of modern Pagan spirituality, Faery lacks a guiding set of ethical principles. This is, of course, nonsense. To be sure, we do lack anything as pithy and quotable as the Wiccan Rede or the Ten Commandments, but I would suggest that, taken together as a unified whole, the powers and principles encapsulated in the Iron and Pearl Pentacles form the basis of a truly Faery system of ethics or moral philosophy. The trick is, of course, that they are the basis of that philosophy, not an explicit statement of that philosophy, nor a collection of instructions on how to enact it. As with so much else, one must do the work of putting it together oneself, or with the help of one’s teachers and fellow students and initiates. (That can be a pain in the ass, to be sure, but anyone who says that Faery is “easy” or “convenient” is lying to you, and shouldn’t be trusted.)

The Faery Pentacles are multifaceted, fulfilling multiple roles within the practice of Faery, and I won’t presume here to give instruction on the use of these most holy symbols, meditative tools, and complex magical sigils. I will restrain myself to mentioning that one of the points of the Pearl Pentacle—and, therefore, one of the key principles of Faery—is named sometimes as Liberty, sometimes as Power. I’m quite sure most folks interested in Faery are familiar with both concepts. I’m equally sure that most readers have an idiosyncratic and deeply nuanced definition of, and relationship with, those concepts. While I’m focussing on the point as Liberty, I want to keep us aware of its equally valid identity as Power; indeed, as mentioned later, an awareness of the relationship between Power and Liberty can usefully inform how we approach either concept.

What I mean when I use a conceptual term like “liberty” is not, and cannot be, identical to what you mean by that same term; even if we agree on the denotative meaning, our individual personalities and histories will give us connotative meanings that cannot be equated. I do think it’s reasonable, though, to start with agreed-upon denotative meanings and work from there. More than reasonable, I think it’s necessary. We need to talk about liberty, autonomy, sovereignty, and accountability: what those words mean, how they’re related, and why understanding those ideas is important, not only for Faery, but for life in general. The trouble is, these are pretty heavyweight concepts, better suited to university-level philosophy courses (or late-night pub sessions) than to necessarily-brief blog posts. Nevertheless, if we’re to have any real grasp of what Faery looks like in practice, of how to walk as a Witch in the real world of actions and choices and responsibilities, we need to understand them as well as we know the sound of our own hearts beating.

And to do that, we need to talk about Westphalia.

Westphalia is a region of Germany known for producing camper vans. It’s also known as the place where, in 1648, three treaties were signed in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück. At the time, Europe was in the midst of throwing, not one, but two wars (designated “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Eighty Years’ War” by historians) which were ravaging the populace and destabilizing the whole region. These three treaties, collectively known as the “Peace of Westphalia,” ended both of them.

They also created the modern political world in which we live, move, and have our being.

In other words, it was created by these dapper gents. Ponder that for a moment. "The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster," 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch. Public domain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
In other words, it was created by these dapper gents. Ponder that for a moment.
“The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster,” 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch. 
Public domain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

To unpack that a bit: the Peace of Westphalia established the concept of “the state” as an independent entity with total and unquestioned control over its own internal affairs, free from any external influence. In the Westphalian system, each state is equal to all others, no matter how great or small, and no state is permitted to impose its will on another merely by dint of force. This concept, referred to as “sovereignty,” became a central component of international law in Europe and, later, throughout the world.

Sovereignty is a tricksy concept. It seems quite simple on its surface: “supreme power or authority,” as the Oxford Dictionary would have it. The nuances are where it becomes interesting, and harder to nail down. Following Westphalia, the term took on a particular set of connotations: independence, freedom from coercion, absolute control over one’s own actions and interests. Sovereignty is also applied to people at times, often people wearing funny hats: emperors, kings, bishops, and the like. The meaning is quite the same: a sovereign is someone over whom no one else has power, someone who has total and final control over their own actions and lives. When speaking of a head of state, or (as some Christians do) of a Supreme Being, it carries with it the implication of control over the lives of everyone under that individual’s power, as well.

It’s a compelling idea, as you’d expect from anything that’s been the core of modern geopolitics for going on 400 years. At its best, sovereignty supplies the logical foundations for self-determination and resistance, enabling a small nation to tell to a larger nation, “No, you may not invade us and take our goods, our land, or our lives, because we are us and they are ours.” At its worst, it tacitly supports the worst atrocities the state can bring to bear on its own people, as in the U.S. massacre and genocide of Native Americans, or the Nazi genocide of German Jews.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, as it were.

Autonomy is similarly tricksy and complex. The word, from the Greek αὐτο (auto, self) + νόμος (nomos, law), literally means “self-legislating,” as in “being a law unto oneself.” In ethics, it refers to the ability of an individual to make unhindered, un-coerced choices. Like sovereignty, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Deriving in great part from the work of Immanuel Kant, autonomy specifically refers to an individual’s ability to make moral choices: to choose to act in a manner consistent with an objective or outside moral standard, regardless of any desire to the contrary, precisely because that choice is consistent with the moral standard. To be autonomous, in other words, is to have moral agency, to be able to choose to do the right thing… even if you don’t necessarily want to.

In modern parlance, autonomy has taken on some of the characteristics of sovereignty, to the point that many people equate the two. For the purposes of this essay, however, I suggest that they are quite different things: related in their approach to questions of power, coercion, and self-determination, but ultimately referring to two different categories of entity: states (to include autocephalous entities such as churches) and individual people. Simply put, only states (and heads of states, who are effectively the State personified) have sovereignty. Likewise, only people can have autonomy.

“What’s the difference,” you may well ask, “and what the hell does any of this have to do with Faery?” Valid and valuable questions, both of them.

Sovereign Westphalian states exist in relationship to one another, but as separate entities without interconnectedness; in other words, they may have foreign policies and treaties with their allies, but their internal affairs and sovereign conduct are intrinsically isolated from the opinion and coercion of other states, even their allies. This is why, for instance, the United States can criticise other countries for their shabby treatment of children or the environment, but has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Kyoto Protocol, the tossers. They’re sovereign, which means they can do as they bloody well like within their own borders, even when doing so ultimately hurts everyone else.

Autonomy, by contrast, exists in the context of an interconnected moral universe. I can choose to act or to refrain from action, to speak or to remain silent, based on my estimation of the ethical weight of the choice, which necessarily incorporates the effect of my words or actions, or of my silence or inaction, on the world around me. Autonomy requires responsibility as an intrinsic component of moral agency. In other words, there is no autonomy without accountability. Thus, whatever autonomy means, one thing it cannot mean is “license,” defined as “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, without regard for the outcomes of my actions.”

cartman
NOT this. Pretty much the converse of this. Just… no.
Image from South Park.

South Park references aside, I hope the relation of all this philosophical blather to Faery is beginning to come clear.

What we’re talking about when we talk about “autonomy” is not merely Liberty, but the interrelation and interconnection of Liberty with all the other points of the Pearl Pentacle, and with Power, its own other name and its corresponding point in the Iron Pentacle. Liberty is an essential core principle of a truly Faery ethic… but no greater than any of the other points. It does not trump Knowledge and Wisdom, nor Love and Law, and without them it becomes nothing more than license, which is not a magical virtue, no matter what that one pseudo-Thelemite guy at the pub meet tried to tell you, all the while staring at your ass and offering to buy you drinks. In fact, even Aleister Crowley—that noted proponent of license, impropriety, and Doing What Thou Wilt—made it quite clear in his writings that there was a bloody great difference between “doing one’s True Will” and “doing whatever the hell you want.” Faery can, and should, have at least as solid a grasp on that distinction as Crowley did.

Blessedly, we do… and characteristically, perhaps even frustratingly, it doesn’t express well as a sound-bite.  If I have learnt anything at all about Faery (an open question, surely, but go with me on this), it’s that Faery is about relationships, about being in relationship: with Gods, with spirits, with our kinfolk, with our families and friends and neighbors, with the worlds around us and within us.

A central part of the work of being in relationship is being aware of how what I say and do affects those around me, and accepting responsibility for that: accountability, or as some would say, “owning it.” Sometimes, owning our words and actions means apologising and attempting to make amends. Other times, it means arguing, negotiating, or standing on our principles and refusing to budge, even in the fact of conflict with those we love. Sometimes, it’s mildly uncomfortable. Others, it’s excruciating, or joyful, or dull drudgery. In all cases, it’s about being authentically we you are, exercising moral agency, and accepting responsibility for what that means.

Accountability is the other half of autonomy, without which there can be no autonomy. Lacking accountability, the individual believes itself to be sovereign, as a state or a Supreme Being is sovereign, and inflates its own ego to the point of collapse (or prolapse, if you like). From there, everything else—magic, relationships, personality itself—follows suit. Accountability is what connects us to the world around us, what enables the very relationships that lie at the heart of Faery. To whom are we accountable? Why, to those with whom we’re in relationship: Gods, spirits, our kith and kin, the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we treat with them, we do so with the force of our very beings, and in so doing, we make ourselves accountable for what we do. This is why our oaths are sacred, why our words are imbued with power and meaning, why our actions cause change far beyond the range of our sight: because through them, we are accountable. If we are not accountable, we betray our words and actions, and the power leaks out of them as through a hole in our cup.

Or, you know, whatever vessel you put power in.
Or, you know, whatever vessel you put power in.
The Leaky Cauldron. Harry Potter film set at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, UK. Image by Jack1956.

In the context of Faery, let’s look again at that statement from the beginning: “We recognize the value of individual autonomy, but we also recognize and honor the fact that our choices affect the choices of others.”

Viewed through the lens of autonomy and accountability, as defined above, this statement begins to unfold to us. After all, I cannot make a choice that changes the world without, y’know, changing the world. Of course, some choices are more impactful than others, and affect others’ choices to a greater degree.

Let’s say, for instance, that I decide to eat an orange. No one else may eat that orange, but that’s unlikely to cause much strife even in my home, where we lurve oranges. If there are no other oranges in the house, I can always pop out to market and pick some up. However, should I be amongst a group of friends when I decide to, say, spoil the new Star Wars film, my behaviour would get me tossed out on my ear, and rightly so. In both cases, I am accountable to those with whom I am in relationship, and to the fact that my choices affect theirs. If I eat the last orange, I merely need to pick up more oranges at market, but if I choose to spoil a movie (or book, or whatever) for someone, I’ve permanently ruined an experience for them, which is potentially an unforgivable offense. At the very least, it reveals me to be a churlish boor, and I’d have no leg to stand on if they chose not to invite me to future engagements… or to take a poke at me, for that matter.

So, then, how much more so with Faery? What if I wish to publicly reveal some shared material of the tradition considered by other initiates, folk I consider “kin,” to be oathbound? Or, if not oathbound, then “merely” sacred, to be held in confidence and secrecy? What if I should suggest to students, seekers, or other interested parties that my particular, idiosyncratic take on Faery is normative, and that Faery who practice in some other way are somehow beyond the pale? What if I decide to charge students money to be “initiated” into Faery, or to demand sexual favors from students, or to dox my fellow initiates, publishing their names and personal details for the world to see? When someone (or, more likely, several someones) comes to me with criticisms, grievances, even outright anger, how should I receive that?

Well, if we are in relationship to one another, as suggested by the term “kin,” then I am accountable to them. If it is my claim that we are part of the same tradition, I owe it to them—I am obliged—to hear their words, to consider their counsel openly and honestly, and to allow that counsel to inform the choices I make. If someone with whom I am in a relationship tells me that my choices are impeding or harming their own choices, I have a responsibility to take that seriously, to consider the possibility that I am behaving in an immoral and unethical fashion, and to modify my behaviour accordingly.

Why?

Because at the end of the day, as a wise woman once said to me, we are the choices we make and the stories we tell. The choices we make show us what kind of people we are; the stories we tell shape the choices we believe we have, and put those choices into some kind of context. If my story is that I’m wholly independent, beholden to no-one and nothing—save, perhaps, the Gods—then my choices I perceive will be limited in scope, and will tend to reinforce that worldview. If I see myself as sovereign, as hermetically isolated from other initiates, I am denying our kinship, spinning a story in which we have no relationship, and in which I’m therefore not accountable for how my choices affect theirs.

At the risk of belaboring an obvious point: that’s magic. It’s a spell… or, if you prefer, it’s a glamour, an illusion. It’s illusory, because sovereignty is a delusion. What we have, instead, is Liberty: power and agency. We have autonomy. We exist in a moral context, in relationships with others of our lineage and with the world around us. Our choices change the world, and affect the choices others can make, which makes us accountable.

At our initiation into Faery, we formally acknowledge and accept both our autonomy and our accountability, each as part and parcel of the other. However, being an initiate doesn’t grant autonomy; we have it merely by being human. As such, it shouldn’t require an oath to enforce accountability. All it should take is a basic level of consideration for others: Say “please” and “thank you.” Don’t steal somebody else’s things. Ask before you use them. Don’t spoil the movie. Share nicely, and without pouting. You know, the things we expect children to learn before they leave primary school.

After all, if we cannot be at least that accountable, if we cannot own our own words and actions, however do we expect to treat with spirits, Gods, or our own shadows?

 

Teaching a Witch (by Sara Amis)

[Slightly revised from these two posts on A Word to the Witch.]

There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not.  Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.

I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides.  Teaching is my day job.  As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.

famtradteacher1

Knowledge is not enough

Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher.  Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements.  Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.

In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary.  You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it.  Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress.  Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus.  Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach.  In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.

This is not about you

If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be.  Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it.  The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student.  If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.

The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you.  To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core.  Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts.  Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge.  Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise.  The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling.  One is plenty; four is too much.  I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Be very aware of your language.  Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it.  This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like.  I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it.  Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it.  Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?”  The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.

At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge.  Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.

Don’t get bored

In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching:  “Don’t let them bore you.”

There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun.  But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels.  If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing.  If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft).  If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else.  Most of all, if  you are bored you will be boring.

Different models of teaching and their uses

Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.

The classroom or workshop model

Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space.  That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.

The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.

The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole.  A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.

Apprenticeship

An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship.  This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report.  This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.

Teaching in covens

In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one.  In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities.  Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated.  I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be.  There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.

Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit.  The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”

From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital.  How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give?  I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense.  There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week.  I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks.  I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.

Conclusion

In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself.  I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles.  As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say.  To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice.  My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.

I Break Containers (by Elinor Prędota)

Since I caught its scent in 2000 and realised its current had been nudging on my awareness for ten years already, I’d done what I could to study, learn, connect with and generally be in the same vicinity as Feri tradition. During that time I’d strongly received the message, from Feri initiates, teachers, from dedicants of all sorts of other paths and religions, that daily spiritual practice is a Good Thing – that it is, in fact, essential. But it didn’t occur to me until half a decade ago that, as for Vizzini in The Princess Bride, that did not mean what I thought it meant.

One practice I’d been doing throughout my Feri/Faery training was making Kala, or, as the teacher who would finally initiate me names it, the Water Trick. I’d had four cups that I’d bought specifically for the purpose of making Kala. Every single one of them ended up cracked or broken, or developed a leak.

First of all there was the beautiful clay goblet with a powder blue glaze that I picked up in an Oxfam shop in Edinburgh: it fell off its shelf onto the floor and broke in two. Then there was the gorgeous, apple wood, hand-turned chalice which I’d bought in the mid-1990s in Bath: the centre fell out of the knot in its side making it no less beautiful, but utterly unusable; the cup I made myself at a pottery class and which, although properly fired and without visible cracks, holes or fissures, conspired to dribble its contents out of its base every time it was filled; and finally, the round-bellied, clay chalice with a glaze shifting from tan brown to mustard yellow, another charity shop purchase, which spontaneously developed a crack overnight, without ever moving from its spot on the altar.

As you might imagine, I became suspicious that Something Was Up. At the time of this final insult to my attempts to be a daily spiritual practitioner, I was about halfway through a two-and-a-half year training with T. Thorn Coyle. We did a lot of work with our tools, both physically and metaphysically, and the idea came up in discussion with my fellow students of the ‘cracked cup’ – the student on the spiritual path who cannot hold the benefits of their work, because they have an unhealed wound, or an unnoticed fissure somewhere in their body, physical or energetic.

This made a lot of sense to me, as I was at the time finally coming to grips with a lifetime’s untreated depression. It also made sense because I took my first steps into the occult through the Tarot. I did a lot of journeying into the cards in my teens, and returned frequently to the Ace of Cups. Again and again I experienced being the Cup, the vessel for the Holy Spirit and the water of Life to work through into the world.

From that point on, I didn’t acquire any more cups with the practice of making Kala in mind.

Over the next year daily practice became more and more difficult for me, to the point where I just about gave up, although it was always in my mind, especially once I asked my final Faery teacher to take me on as a student. After having some success with doing the exercises she suggested daily, I found myself thinking about them, but not doing them.

I said before that I didn’t acquire any more cups for making Kala: that’s true, but I did make one last attempt at having a ‘special’ vessel for the purpose – the very first piece of pottery I had ever thrown, fired and glazed, back when I was 18 and a year into my journey with the Tarot.

I had made it with the intention of pouring out libations to the elements; I had used four different glazes to represent the four elements, overlapping with each other to create eight colours. It was lumpy and uneven, some of the blended glazes had run where the chemicals in them had interacted to alter their properties under heat, and it was perfect. I had carried it with me and kept it safe for 22 years. This simple, sturdy, uneven cup I had made myself, this cup which had been with me for so long, which knew me so well, which I did not imagine for a minute could possibly succumb as the others had done – which, not long after, fell off a table and split in two.

Broken Cup by Joanna Bourne. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.
Broken Cup by Joanna Bourne. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Shortly after that, I received a waking vision:

It is sunny and there is a clear, wide, straight and even track stretching off into the distance, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at myself as I sit on the grass verge, dense woods behind me. I am unable to walk on along the path. This isn’t for lack of energy, through illness or injury, but through unwillingness. My will is not to walk the clear, wide, straight and even track in sunlight; my will is to walk into the wild woods, into the dark, the unknown, the trackless – into the arms of nature.

I had not connected the vision with the broken cup, but following conversations with my teacher and others, something shifted into place within me: all of those broken Kala cups were not because I am a ‘cracked vessel’, but because I simply do not fit within walls any longer, because my path was not one of form: I break containers.

Talking to my teacher and another initiate who is a close friend, I heard reflected back a confirmation of what I felt: that going into the wild, into the woods, into nature was what I needed; that, in my friend’s words, it was about time I stopped torturing myself trying to make myself do spiritual practice that way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done, and did it my way.

Fetch-me was so mightily relieved. No more rules! No more instructions! No more boring straight path! Relaxation and fun and doing stuff that kept Fetch-me happy was the order of the day.

This included a lot of walking in the woods, sitting by the burn (a particularly Scottish kind of stream), falling asleep on stones, conversing with buzzards and swallows, cuddling dogs, making healthy food, listening to the wind, standing and singing barefoot under the full moon. After a while, it also began to include mantras to the sun, T’ai Chi for the moon, alignment, salt water baths and whatever out of my existing bag of tools and tricks took my fancy and felt right.

And it was happening every day, which made it daily practice, right?

Which points to the vitally important nugget at the heart of all this. With all of those ‘Kala cups’, with all of the following instructions, I was making the mistake of turning daily practice into something special, something cut out, something disconnected, and, as my teacher said to me, the whole point of all of this is connection.

The point of daily practice is that it is not special: it is beautiful and self-expanding and joyful and full of wonder and connecting, but it is not special.

It is, quite literally, everyday.