The Pentacles as a Virtue-Based Ethical System (by Sara Amis)

[originally published 2007 – reprinted by permission of the author]

I’m occasionally puzzled by assertions that Feri is amoral, or alternately lacking in moral substance. This statement is made either as a criticism (we don’t have Rules, therefore we don’t have ethics, therefore Horrible Things Will Happen) or in defiance (you can’t tell me what to do, because we don’t have rules). I think both of those attitudes are rooted in a very basic misapprehension: Rules don’t equal ethics.

As it happens, following rules is a stage of moral development, but not a very advanced one.[i] Rules are nothing more nor less than received authority, either from society or from some posited divine influence. It should be immediately apparent why Feri doesn’t have many of those.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in my life organizing groups in person, and moderating communities online. The very first Pagan-ish group I was ever in, there was this one guy… I’ll call him Dave. Every single rule we had… from “Discuss what you are doing with the group and make sure your ‘experiment’ is okay with them BEFORE you lead everyone through a meditation” to “Please do not tell people they can join the group before the rest of us have even met them”… was because of something Dave had done. The trouble was, he kept thinking up new things to do. We were always one calamity behind.

One tidbit of wisdom I gleaned from this is that while clear expectations and goals are useful if you want a group of people to work together, rules are almost useless. Bluntly put, grownups don’t need rules, and the individuals who do need rules won’t follow them, plus they will always think up stuff that would never cross a sane person’s mind. You can deal with that problem in various ways, but if someone’s mama didn’t raise them right, you aren’t going to be able to. In other words, if they haven’t internalized certain values, they will not act according to them.

It’s true that there is no way to enforce ethics in Feri from outside. Feri expects you to be a grownup. It does occasionally happen that we get someone whose mama didn’t raise them right. The appropriate response from a community of equals when a member misbehaves is disapprobation. It need not even be unanimous censure, though it helps when we discuss such things openly. What we can’t do is un-Feri someone, or impose sanctions on them, because there is no organization or decision-making body to do such a thing, and I think personally that creating one would prove to be a cure worse than the disease. (Nor will it solve the problem, as the world is full of structured organizations with clear ethical rules that nonetheless have members who behave unethically.) It’s entirely possible for a Feri initiate or otherwise affiliated person to behave very unethically indeed… or simply act like a jackass… and get away with it. I will refrain from offering examples.

I wish to offer here the very radical notion that the primary purpose of an ethical system is not to set down rules covering every possible circumstance or to enforce punishment of infractions, but to allow those who are interested in behaving ethically to find sustenance. In that, I have found Feri to be extremely successful. That is because it offers several methods of internalizing certain values about human beings, what they are and how they should interact with the world around them. Those methods are in fact at the core of the tradition… the Iron Pentacle, the Pearl Pentacle, and the notion of the Three Souls. Notice those are not discussions of values, but the values themselves. They are also meditative tools which many of us work with every day. They are both the principles and the means of internalizing them. The basic underlying value is integrity: The point of our practice is to be a whole person, and a whole person will behave ethically.

I’m not sure what we can do about the other problem anyway without undermining very important values that we do have, such as autonomy. The radical independence of each initiate is part and parcel of the expectation that we will act like grownups and therefore don’t need rules. What we can do with someone who isn’t and does is… well, a matter for discussion. I won’t attempt to embark upon that discussion right now; I will merely point out that it can’t be scotched or dismissed or despaired of on the premise that we don’t have any ethical principles to begin with. We certainly do have principles, and they’ve been right out there on the living room table the whole time. I’m often perplexed as to why they aren’t obvious to everyone. Perhaps the elephant sat on them.

…Wait, I was going to talk about those. Principles. We have several that are explicitly about how you act towards (or with) other people. They are five in number: Love, Knowledge, Wisdom, Law, and Liberty, the points of the Pearl Pentacle. There are also five points in the Iron Pentacle which describe the forces which drive the human psyche: Sex, Self, Pride, Passion, Power. The PP, roughly speaking, is about your relationship with the not-merely-human world around you, and the IP is about your relationship with yourself. Of course, they are intertwined; if you value Pride or Passion, for example, you don’t just value it in yourself. Honoring the pride, passion, selfhood, sexuality, and power of others goes along with honoring your own. That is what seems to trip most people up; they can see how valuable some of those traits are in themselves, but the way it makes other people act seems to perplex them.

Symbol Green Mystical Pentagram Fire

Steve Hewell believes, and I tend to agree with him, that if you work with the Iron Pentacle enough the Pearl will unfold from it automatically; however, sometimes we need to grease the hinges a little. I hesitate to even attempt to explain the points as I see them because I’m equally afraid of someone either arguing with my interpretation of them or taking them as a directive. The point is to work with the Iron and Pearl until you embody those traits, as fully as possible and in your own unique way. But here goes:

Sex as a virtue? Well, how do you think you got here? Remember that we Feri folk believe that the primary creative force is erotic. The universe came into being because the Star Goddess experienced divine, er, joy. We also don’t believe in original sin of any description. We reject the notion that matter is dead, or wrong, or inferior. Life is good. Therefore, existence, the universe, other people, the whole shebang, are all in a sense fundamentally good, and also worthy of love just by virtue of being here. That doesn’t mean love everyone you meet in an intimate or emotional sense, but it does mean that you recognize their basic worth.

Your unique self is valuable. So are all the other unique selves. Self is inherently paradoxical: “God is Self and Self is God and God is a person like my Self”[ii] doesn’t quite mean what it appears to mean. Self is an illusion, but a useful one. It’s a big universe; one of the ways to express joy in it is to know things about it. Knowledge also brings clarity: it makes a difference what the truth is, especially in your dealings with others. Knowledge as a virtue also means not fudging the facts, because lies distort knowledge. Know thyself, know the truth; as best you can.

But intellectual knowledge, demarcated by the boundary of the self, can become a bit detached. Passion is about connection; wisdom about understanding on a visceral level, whole understanding based on having experienced something rather than only observing or reading about it. Again, it’s an expression of being in love with the world. (Com)Passion and Wisdom also grant empathy with the experiences of others.

Pride is the absolute knowledge of your own worth and the worth of your place and work in the world. Law is that knowledge plus the understanding of the worth of others, plus the comprehension that “the moral arc of the universe… bends towards justice”[iii] in your dealings with them. Act from centered self-worth, and recognition of the worth of others.

If you are worthy, so are your actions in the world. We don’t shy away from power; many of our meditations and aphorisms are aimed at gathering it and conserving it: “Never submit your life force to anything or anyone for any reason.”[iv] This is the one that makes people twitchy the most; we all have images of abuse of power in our heads. However, if you value Power and Freedom as ideas, you must value them in others as well as yourself. Empowerment is not just for you, but for other people. Freedom is for everyone. Liberty for all.

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[i] See Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on the stages of moral development, as well as criticism of it by Carol Gilligan.

[ii] Victor Anderson

[iii] The full quote is, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” There are some other quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same speech that are very interesting from a Feri point of view:

Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like the U.A.W. to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.

It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject the Nietzschean philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love. Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

– Speech to the Tenth Anniversary Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967

[iv] Victor Anderson

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Grumpy Fae (by Steve Hewell)

[Originally published in Witch Eye #9; republished by permission of the author.]

At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with just how ornery and fractious we appear to be from the outside. We hear it often enough. And it’s true; we ain’t exactly sweetness and light. Not too long ago, someone remarked to me, “You Feri-types aren’t quite what I expected. I mean, most of the folks I come across in Witchcraft groups these days try to act like nothing ever goes wrong, like they’re too ‘spiritually evolved’ for anything like that. Y’all don’t seem to mind being, well, openly quick-tempered. You’re a pretty irascible bunch!” I thought that was putting it rather politely.

A couple of days later, a student of mine complained that when she worked with the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, she “felt irascible.”

Irascible. It’s a curious word; you don’t really hear it used in conversation very often. It’s a little archaic and old-fashioned.

Sometimes, I find myself caught by a word like that. Maybe I’ve never heard it before. Maybe I have, possibly quite often, but never really gave it much thought. Part of it is just the way a certain word feels in my mouth when I say it. There I was, with “irascible”. What did it mean, exactly? Where did it come from? Was its appearance in my little corner of the Universe just one of those things, or was there something to be learned here?

Words are magic. Words are something we humans use to create our world, carving packets of energy out of the universal froth, investing them with meanings and significance, and linking them up in webs and patterns of association and reflection. The magical power in words lies not only in their ability to focus our energy compactly, but also in their inherent fluidity. By changing our words around, we can change our inner perception of the world and thus how we experience it. Perceiver and perceived create each other; change the nature of the perceptions, and the ripple effect flows outward into the world and creates change there, too. Like I said: magic.

Looking into how words come to mean what they do is kind of psychic archaeology. The ways in which a particular word has evolved, adapted, and mutated reveals a lot about people and and how we try to understand the world and ourselves across large swathes of time. Working on “irascible” took me on an interesting little trip; it’s part of a whole constellation of words whose meanings are particularly curious in light of things Feri-esque.

The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, provided the following: “Prone to outbursts of temper, easily angered…” It originally entered Middle English via the Late Latin word “irascibilis”, from “ira-”, meaning “anger”. The root-source is in the Indo-European root “eis”.

All the words in Indo-European languages that grew from this little root have do with passion. As above, Latin got “ira-”, which gave English words like irate, ire, and, of course, irascible.

From a suffixed zero-grade form, *is(e)ro, it shows up in Greek as “hieros”, meaning “powerful, holy”. It denoted a state of being literally “filled up with the Divine.”

In Old High German, we find “isarn/isan”, which migrated into Old English as “isern”, eventually becoming “iren” — iron! Linguists believe that the source of this is a (possibly) Celtic word, *isarno-, meaning “holy metal”. Iron came from thunderstones, bolts of star-stuff that fell to Earth in a blaze of light and fury. Nowadays, we call them meteorites.

Another turn that “eis” took in Greek is a suffixed o-grade form, which replaced the initial “e” with an “o”; this gets us *ois-tro-, or “madness”, and gave English things like estrus and estrogen. Poke into ancient Greek religion a little bit, and you’ll find that the Greeks considered madness to be the touch of the Divine; the direct experience of divine power could be enough to send a person raving into the night, even if only temporarily. Among others, the Maenades, Bacchoi and Delphic Pythia spring to mind.

All this linguistic geekery aside, where does this leave us? Whatever the word’s history, people who call us irascible are not usually referring to how “filled with the holy” we seem! Why are we such grumpy Fae, so “prone to outbursts, easily angered”? What’s up with that?

First of all, anger has a bad reputation which it doesn’t really deserve. To be sure, out of control anger has caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering. That, however, has less to do with anger itself than with how we deal with it. Anger is innate, hardwired into our systems by millions of years of evolution. Anger is a response to having our boundaries, physical or otherwise, violated in some way. We tend to feel anger when someone crosses an important boundary in a way that makes us feel threatened, a way that we feel is an attempt to co-opt or diminish our autonomy as beings. In short, anger is a perfectly healthy response to an attempt to disempower us in some fashion.

There is nothing inherently wrong in feeling an anger-response. It’s the sentry that guards our physical and psychic integrity from attack. Healthy anger is never vicious or sadistic. Its energy is tremendously powerful. What makes the difference is what we choose to do with all that energy. Do we use it to strengthen and restore our violated boundaries in a way that is skillful and honorable, a way that reestablishes not only our own integrity, but also that of the person or persons with whom we are dealing? Or do we lash out far beyond our own energetic perimeter in a search-and-destroy mission, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of carnage behind us?

When we are grounded and centered in the Power Point of the Iron Pentacle, we are alert to the signals of anger and to what they mean. We can move quickly and surely to restore our boundaries; no more, no less. To people who habitually violate others and steal their energy, this is enormously frustrating. Trying to siphon energy out of a person with strong, healthy boundaries is an exercise in utter futility. More often than not, they may try a little word-magic of their own, and accuse their target of being difficult, touchy, defensive, or just plain ol’ mean. This often works; after all, we don’t want people to think we’re mean, do we? We humans are social animals, with an innate desire to be liked. Our survival depends on being part of a group and “getting along” with the other members. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this can be used against us. How often has the admonishment to “be nice” really translated into “be controllable”?

granny-weatherwax-quoteIf you’re working in the Feri Tradition, being seen as “not very nice” isn’t going to keep you up at night. Our teachings place a very strong emphasis on guarding our own life-force. Our life-force is the presence of the Divine within us; to respect and honor it is to respect and honor God Herself. In the face of that, the opinions of users, crazy-makers, and energy-suckers tend to get short shrift.

When work on the Power Point really kicks in, it’s a tremendous release. We start to see the ways in which our lives have been shaped and molded into something not of our desire, something that our souls barely even recognize. It can be the revelation of a lifetime of having our boundaries violated as a matter of course. Anger is understandable. “Nice” isn’t going to be very high on our list of things to be. Once we begin to see how much of our power we have surrendered, or even had stolen from us outright, getting royally pissed is only natural. After spending so much of our time bound up in fear of isolation and ostracism, of having the life sucked out of us by a tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts”, the experience of severing those energetic bonds can be quite the rush. A period of enjoying this new-found ability is only to be expected. In Alchemy, this phase is called “Separation”, a process of cutting through attachments that don’t contribute anything to our lives. Its correspondences include the color orange-red, the planet Mars, and, interestingly, the metal iron. The individual in Separation is a warrior of heart and spirit, sifting through the layers of their identity, keeping what works and letting go of that which does not. It’s the first place I see most people go when they really begin to grasp the Power Point. It’s cathartic, caustic, and it can be really rough on the other people in our lives, if they have no idea where it’s coming from.

It’s also really easy to get stuck there. The sense of liberation, of lightening the load, is exhilarating and enlivening. So much more juice flowing through our system, so much more energy! It can be highly addictive. It’s also only one phase of the process; if we get hooked on it, it can quickly degenerate into paranoia and simple psychic blood lust. Human history is littered with examples of people who got caught up in this energetic slicing and dicing as an end in and of itself. Having strong, healthy boundaries is good magic. Disemboweling anything that moves is not. Skillfulness in the Power Point is knowing how and when to wield that magic knife.

Feris who live from a position of being grounded and centered in their own inner place of power are always going to seem a bit cantankerous. It’s not a flaw, no matter what the energy-thieves of this world might say about it. Their meat and drink are the doormats of this world; their bane, the people who own and keep their power. So, go ahead. Be irascible, and be proud of it. I know I am.