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.

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.

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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.

We do not charge for teaching the core of the Faery tradition (by Helix)

In the future, this blog will feature a series of essays from multiple authors, examining and expanding on the 2011 Faery statement of principles. Of these principles, “We do not charge for teaching the core of the Faery tradition” receives the most public attention, perhaps because among the principles, it is the most concrete and easy to grasp. In that way, I think this principle has overshadowed other parts of the statement that were intended to have equal or greater weight. In light of this attention, I chose to address the statement’s last principle first.

Although our opinions are diverse (with some having a more liberal and others a stricter view), many of those who embrace the statement of principles affirm that a witch can ethically charge and accept barter for a wide range of magical services. These may include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Divination
  • Spells
  • Herbal preparations
  • Magical tools
  • Spiritual direction or counseling sessions
  • Short-term in-person teaching of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
  • Writings and instructional videos of non-initiatory, skill-based Craft material
  • Long-term teaching of herbalism, personal development, occult philosophy and history, astrology, traditional medicine, bodywork, or other knowledge that may inform but is not formally part of an initiatory Craft tradition

As a group, our commitment to offering initiatory training without monetary obligation is rooted in our own experiences of economic instability and hardship and those of our loved ones. Unlike so many of the other occult innovators of the twentieth-century, Victor and Cora Anderson were not born into economic privilege. Their young adulthood was lived during the struggles of the Depression and World War II, and both experienced the death of close loved ones during childhood. As a young married couple, they experienced profound poverty and even, at times, hunger. Although the Andersons struggled financially throughout their lives, they taught their students free of charge. Especially during the Andersons’ later years, those who benefited from their work showed their gratitude in many ways, including gifts of food and money, visits, errands, and other support.

Some of those who embrace the 2011 Faery statement of principles are blessed to find themselves in comfortable economic circumstances now but have struggled in the past. Among us are those have experienced major illness, or supported families during the major illness of a spouse; who have struggled after a divorce or death, sometimes as single parents; who have lost jobs and unsuccessfully sought work for months on end while bills mounted; who have pursued advanced education and took on heavy debt, only to graduate in a contracted job market; and who have lived on a meager pension or disability payments. Some of us still struggle in those circumstances and are quietly helped by loved ones. We know that difficult times come to many individuals and families, especially in the political and economic climate we find ourselves in today, and we share a commitment to provide aid to each other and our communities during times of crisis.

Family Reading, by Carl Bengts. Public domain {{PD-US}}. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Family Reading, by Carl Bengts. Public domain {{PD-US}}. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although some of us paid teachers for parts of our training, many of us were taught without financial obligation and fed in our teachers’ homes, even when our teachers themselves were struggling. Some of us were trained during financially difficult periods in our lives when we could not have afforded to pay for training. As teachers, we do not want the financial situations of either our students or ourselves to create barriers between us. With the generosity of the Andersons and our other teachers in mind, but knowing that our resources are finite, we have committed only to teach as many students as we can meaningfully welcome into our homes as family. This practice helps to create the permanent, stable, emotionally intimate relationships that are essential to our Craft.

We celebrate those among us who make a living teaching knowledge that, while not part of the Craft itself, informs our understanding of it: poetry, literature, religious studies, ethics, history, anthropology, psychology, biology, physics, and more. We do not, however, consider teaching to have a higher status than other kinds of work. Among us are health care providers, craftspeople, workers in the service industry, administrators, and many others—all of whom bring their insights as witches to relationships with co-workers, clients, and the public. We affirm that all these professions can be the right work of a witch, who creates a subtle but pervasive positive impact on hir community.

May we all be prosperous and surrounded by loving kin; may we all find our right work.