In my last blog, Oathbound Witches Sworn to Secrecy, I discussed Oaths of Secrecy as a frame to build a suitable structure for one’s individual or group Path. This post is following on from a discussion on my last post I had with a brother and friend in the Craft whose currently in training from a syncretic tradition. What stirred me to consider my position was the frequency by which Traditions and systems of magic craft their own histories, often taking from other sources. In this sense what this blog post seeks to explore is the concept of the “essential” Truth in the information society that we live in as modern practitioners of magic.
As a Witch the first port of call for me as someone interested in the study of modern witchcraft was published materials, either online or in hardcopy books. Books such as Stewart and Janet Farrar’s, The Witches Bible adorned my bookshelf (as it does so today). While the Farrars are downline from Alex Sanders, they inherited the syncretic history crafted by Sanders whether they asked for it or not. In case people are unfamiliar there is a text called, King of the Witches by June Johns first published in January 1971, in which the author writes Sanders biography. Now many critics have argued that Johns may have been a pseudonym for Sanders himself to add creditability to the biography, however, whether this is true or not we find an interesting development in Sanders accounts of his initiation into the Craft by way of his grandmother. Many disputed this, including Sanders own family, as a means to legitimize himself in Craft circles. Some commentators remarked that the three core texts of the Alexandrian Book of Shadows do not differ too greatly from Gerald B. Gardner’s Book of Shadows.
Much like Sanders, Gardner has also been accused of founding his form of Wicca through false claims to older covens and traditions. Gardner claimed initiation into the New Forest Coven, while its been hypothesized that the New Forest Coven may have been a coven formed in the wake of the works of the now disputed scholar, Margaret Murray little information has been dug up on this group. Occasionally the internet and blogospheres will alight rumours of Family Traditions who dispute the material in Wicca as being a mishmash of folk customs and ceremonial works. This is what is meant by syncreticism; whereby elements of other traditions and systems are inserted into another to form a new whole. Sometimes this is done eloquently and other times it can be very slap-dash.
If Gardner (and Doreen Valiente) is guilty of creating a syncretic system, so too are many forms of ceremonial magic such as the Golden Dawn system. What Samual MacGregor Mathers and William Wynn Wescott, the founders of the Golden Dawn, did was to use manuscripts called the Cipher Manuscripts as the focus for building the system. It still required work from the founders and of course besides the Cipher MSS there was always the letters from the mysterious Fräulein Sprengel which would take on mythical aspects as the Order splintered into different groups. As with any living tradition people add to the mythos as well as take away from it. When Crowley moved away from the Golden Dawn system he found his way into Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) and developed Thelema based on the experience of the spirit, Aiwass.
Let us recap; we have Sander’s mythicification of his grandmother as a family witch, Gardner’s mythical New Forest coven, G.’.D.’. and the mythical Fräulein Sprengel and the Cipher MSS, OTO/Thelema and the information passed on to Crowley by Aiwass. Anyone familiar with magical realism in literature will note that mythos is an important motif but it is rarely the narrative itself. Oddly enough when it comes to group dynamics such syncretic histories or mythical origins can be useful to a point insofar as fostering the sense of mythos that a new Candidate or student seeks. However, when a group forms on the basis of rejecting such syncretic histories they can invariably develop their own mythos based on the idea that they rejected a “false” one.
The idea of an essential Truth in magical groups strikes me as a misnomer and indeed if I were to ask friends I am sure that I would receive a very bemused series of questions as to why I should think there should be. In all honesty such essential truths strike me as a stepping stone to pursuit of magic as a field of study. In much the same manner that placement of implements and tools can form a pattern of behaviour and eventually build upon the strengths of the ritual or ceremony, so too can a sense of connection established through the past. Fundamentally that is what lies at the heart of the various creation stories explored previously in this post.
Culture itself thrives of its creation stories and myths, as a Túathaid in Ireland the stories of Irish lore form an important baseline for me to stand upon. But equally so as a Túathaid who lives on the back of the Shannon, the power of story not only teaches us of the past but also teaches us how to tell stories of our own. What is your story?