So You Want to Learn Faery, But You Can’t Find a Teacher? (by Traci and Helix)

Faery/Feri is an ecstatic tradition of witchcraft. That means it’s an embodied tradition, and it’s a lineage passed physically. By its very nature it requires in-person transmission. But many of us, for various reasons, will never live near an initiate or be able to travel to visit one. What do we do if this flavor of the craft speaks to us and we find ourselves without access to a teacher?

The first big thing we must do is let go of expectation. A sure way to get ourselves into the weeds is by trying to compel something to happen. To learn any esoteric system, but especially one that is left-hand, a trustworthy, responsible teacher with integrity is paramount. If you try to force your access to a teacher you will end up settling — and that’s a bad, potentially even dangerous idea.

So, just take a deep breath and let it go. Let go of your expectation around Anderson Faery. Let’s do it together. Ready? Deep breath… and let go.

Now let’s chat about some things you *can* do.

John_Downman_Witches_from_Macbeth
The Witches from Macbeth, by John Downman

Work on Your Self

A key tenet of Anderson Faery is the divine nature of the human self in its multi-part form. The self can be developed and explored through many systems and practices. This is not dependent on Faery. Start here. Begin the tasks of self-reflection, personal development, and resiliency training. You might find an established meditation group nearby, search for a good therapist to explore with, or ask like-minded friends to form a regular sitting group with you. A healthy, balanced Self is the cornerstone for any human, Faery witch or otherwise.

If you’re struggling to find an open-minded therapist in your area, look for therapists who advertise a specialty in LGBTQ+ issues. Many of these therapists are also familiar with alternative spiritual paths and will not pathologize or be put off by your spiritual interests.

Deconstruct Your Worldview

The dismantling of the conventional worldview to intentionally cultivate an enchanted, embodied, interconnected worldview is a foundational practice within Anderson Faery. A good way to go about this is through study. There are many books available that will let you see a little more sideways and question aspects of culture you may not have before.

A list of reading material that might be helpful is below. Don’t rush these books. Instead go slowly, contemplatively, making notes as thoughts arise. It’s by spending time with mind-expanding concepts that transformation occurs.  Maybe that sitting group you formed could read through these together?

  • The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World by David Abram
  • Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Joy Diet: Ten Daily Practices for a Happier Life by Martha Beck
  • Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessell van der Kolk
  • Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake by Christine Hoff Kraemer (contact the author if price puts it out of reach)
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman

Fiction and poetry can also be powerful tools for re-orienting yourself to the world. Both Victor and Cora Anderson were poets. Their seriousness about poetry was such that Cora spent their entire life savings to publish Victor’s first book of poetry, Thorns of the Bloodrose. Good poetry can encourage us to think non-linearly and open us to subtle experiences that can only be pointed to with words; good fiction can challenge us to see layers to the world that we never guessed at before. Read widely: classics, speculative fiction, mythology, anything that shifts your perspective or makes you jump out of your seat with sudden recognition. We can’t tell you which writers will open your heart and blow your mind, but Helix loves Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and Traci loves Fiona Macleod (William Sharp) and The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.

Get to Know Your Ancestors

Like many ecstatic traditions, Anderson Faery has a strong thread of Ancestral veneration. Whether you have a nurturing or harmful relationship with ancestors of blood, their genetic heritage is still yours. The work of a witch is to explore those threads, heal them so S/He Hirself is healed, and strengthen their resiliency for the benefit of our descendants. Yet this is not purely imaginal. If you aren’t up to date on the new science of heritability, you might look at It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle by Mark Wolynn.

A practical first step in the process of forming relationship with your ancestors is to create a dedicated space for offerings. This can be as simple as a clean surface with a little cup for water. Add family photographs or heirlooms if you like. Pour fresh water in the cup and say a little blessing over it, such as, “May my ancestors be blessed, may my descendants be blessed.” There is more elaborate and complex work that can be done, but this small step will take you far.

Leave Your House

If this all sounds very heady thus far, it has been. An educated witch is a prepared witch, but the body is included in that. Get out of your box — out of your car, your room, your apartment, your house — and put your feet and elbows in the grass. Explore the land around you. This may be a city park, a strip of wild grasses along a curb, or rambling lanes in the deep countryside. You don’t need to do anything out there, just observe. Be polite. Say hello to other living beings you meet — in your out-loud voice. Witches may be uncanny, quirky, and psychic, but we rarely read each other’s minds, so don’t expect other-than-human persons (big or small) to read yours.

Observe the clouds and the winds where you live. From which direction do they predominantly blow? What does the wind from those different directions feel like on your skin, what sensations do you get, is there a taste? Record your observations in some way. It doesn’t have to be with words. Use movement, poetry, painting, clay, or music. Continue these observations for other living beings, like animals, rivers, birds, insects, trees, flowers. Pick up rubbish (as an offering and act of service) and spend time with the persons you meet. You’ll be surprised at the strong friendships you build by just showing up and sitting with someone, whether they are human or not.

Make Art

Speaking of art, explore yours. How do you express your creativity? Do you move your body, perhaps through ecstatic dance, yoga, line-dancing, or ballet? Do you paint, draw, sew, or knit? Dedicate time to the cultivation and expression of your creativity. Creativity is life force, and Anderson Faery focuses strongly on feeding and expressing this part of our Self. You don’t need to spend money on this pursuit, but it should be something you create a regular practice around.  Allowing creative expression to flow keeps our channels of life force open and clear.

Have Sex

This is a sex-positive tradition because Sex is Life. Have sex not for procreative purposes, but for pleasure, either with yourself alone, with an enthusiastic partner, or through deliberate erotic connection with the land.

We value pleasure, just as we value personal responsibility. We value knowing and owning our choices, behavior, and actions. Hopefully part of your study on dismantling worldview has led you to question cultural norms around sexuality and to ask yourself what your own authentic views are. What is the nature of your sexuality, and how can you nurture it and express it in healthy, responsible ways?

Try taking a bath or shower while fully focusing on the feel of the water moving over your skin. Simple, huh? Really experience it. What does the water trickling over your ankle bone feel like, or the small of your back, or your shoulder? Better yet, go outside: lie on the ground under the full sun. Spread your body out, expose a bit of skin, and feel the rays of the sun absorbing into the flesh of your bicep, your thigh, your stomach: the fleshy parts. Breathe. Can you let your full attention rest with the sensations of your body, its pleasures and its pains? Can you love your own flesh, and the flesh of the land, the way you might adore a human lover?

If That Which You Seek You Do Not Find Within, You Will Never Find It Without

You might not know it, but you have just learned some of the mysteries of Anderson Faery. Hold them with care, cherish them, and let them unfold in your life.

May it be so.

 

__________

Those who are seeking more information about Faery witchcraft and the writings of the Andersons are invited to join the Seekers of Faery Google group.

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Our Holy Mother, the Star Goddess (by Swansister)

As part of my daily practice of devotion to the Star Goddess, I have said the following Faery Tradition prayer nearly every morning for over ten years. There are days when I have blithely taken the words for granted as they flew out of my still sleepy mouth. But there are glorious mornings when these words reverberate through and awaken my sluggish spirit.

“Holy Mother, in whom we Live, Move and Have our Being, from You all Things emerge and unto you all things return.”

“Rose of Galaxies.” Photo credit: NASA, ESA, and
the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

This morning was one of those thrilling mornings when I keenly felt my connection to the ALL. The living vibrancy of this prayer suffused my body in warmth and happy joy. To live in accord with these words means that I have consideration for the place I live, my environment, and the landscape upon which I carry out the routine of my days.

The outside is not just a place for me to get through on my way from Point A and B after I leave my house and get into my car to go somewhere. I’m most comfortable, at ease, happy, and myself when I am outside. I live upon and with the earth. We as humans are the earth. Our bodies are not separate from this planet we inhabit. The matter that makes up our flesh comes from the earth.

I emphatically equate the Earth, all the plants, and every particle of matter with our Holy Mother, the Star Goddess. She is star matter, the elements, and all that I can comprehend.

It is all such a wonder: we humans, animals, plants, and beings come from the earth which spills out of and into the complex universe. We all fold into the cleft of the earth, the universe, and our Holy Mother.

Our emotions, feelings, and thoughts flow into and out of her. She is vast and can feel distant to our human perception of her. But she is always with us, the breath woven into the very fabric of our beings. Immanence through and through…

Beauty, Darkness, Light, Sound, Movement, Energy, and Love.

For me she is the wild, rabid soul of our Earth’s Nature and the Life Giver of the Universe.

Victor Anderson: An American Shaman, by Cornelia Benavidez (Review by Helix)

Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a candid look at the Feri tradition’s most important teacher. The book is loosely arranged into two parts. Part I contains a series of interviews with Victor and Cora Anderson conducted around 1999, about two years before Victor’s death. The interviewer is Cornelia Benavidez, the Andersons’ friend of two decades and an initiate of Victor’s. (Charmingly, the book opens with a copy of a letter of reference for Benavidez from Victor, recommending her as “an honorable person and good witch.”) Victor’s remarks are interspersed with explanatory notes from Benavidez to provide context and additional information. Part II contains supplementary material, including an account of Victor’s last days from Benavidez, an essay by Sara Star that attempts to historically contextualize Victor’s initiation story, comments by Benavidez on the development of Feri after the deaths of the Andersons, and extensive genealogical information on Victor compiled by researcher William Wallworth.

Those who have read earlier interviews that Victor gave over the course of his life will find many of the thoughts recorded here to be familiar. However, in response to Benavidez’s clarifying questions, Victor unpacks many of his views in more detail than was previously available in print and clears up potential areas of ambiguity. Further, since most of the earlier interviews were published in zines or now-out-of-print collections, many readers will be encountering this material for the first time. This factor alone makes An American Shaman an important primary source for the study of Victor and Cora’s lives.

Readers who have primarily encountered Feri witchcraft through websites or in books put out by large publishing houses may be surprised at how little of the material frequently presented as “the Feri tradition” appears in Victor’s final statements of his views. The plain-spoken interviews focus on the Andersons’ core values of love and respect for others and the importance of sexual ethics. Many pages are spent on Victor’s complex ancestry and his relationships with indigenous people. The Andersons’ opposition to American racism and what we would now call cultural appropriation are major emphases, but as a person born during World War I, Victor’s framing of these issues is very different from those of twenty-first century activists. New readers may struggle greatly with his words, finding Victor confusing or downright infuriating.

For the reader who is willing and able to encounter Victor Anderson as a whole human being, however, there is a great deal of insight, humor, and hope recorded in this text. Victor’s Feri tradition is not a set of doctrines or an ideology, nor is it an elite occult club for the sexually alternative. Rather, it is a craft of relationship, devotion, creativity, and joy that the Andersons hoped would help lead humanity away from its most destructive tendencies.

The individual captured in this book’s pages (however incompletely) was a person of striking uniqueness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strain of witchcraft that he helped to create continues to be rich, vital, and extremely contentious. As the years pass and the initiates that knew the Andersons pass away, documents that preserve Victor and Cora’s voices as complex, idiosyncratic human beings become ever more important. Within any group, there is always a temptation to simplify and sanitize the life and views of deceased leaders, lest their inconvenient human realities damage the group’s public face. Yet Feri has a deep commitment to authenticity, and its practice demands great personal intimacy between practitioners. Allowing Victor’s humanness to be forgotten, therefore, would betray our most deeply held values.

As Feri initiates, it is our loving duty to remember Victor honestly and to continue to learn from his teaching. Accordingly, Victor Anderson: An American Shaman is a text recommended for any Feri seeker or student—one that must be read slowly, struggled with, questioned, laid aside and taken up again.

“There are many things I would still want to learn, I’m willing to learn from anybody regardless of their degree of initiation […] I still am anxious to learn anything I can, and apply it and see if it works. If it works I will use it. This is our science and this is how we learn and grow.”

–Victor Anderson, quoted by Cornelia Benavidez

 

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.