Sworn to Secrecy – Part II

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?

Beannachtaí díobh.

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2 Replies to “Sworn to Secrecy – Part II”

  1. Oaths are ways of tying you into a group mind. If your group mind is connected to something older then you get a lot of the positive and negative aspects of its history coming to the fore. Breaking your oath has the effect of cutting you from that group mind, which is why often people find themselves without power after breaking their oath or leaving a group. Sometimes, like in the case of Dion Fortune, this is misunderstood as an attack. But the reality is that a student often leans on the group mind a lot more than they think (particularly in the early stages). I was reading an interesting book on Secret Societies in the Middle Ages which suggests that the reason for magical groups to keep themselves secret was because they had information which was not part of ordinary society. Indeed the fact that it was "different information" was likely to make it a threat to the society in which it exists. If you have a society based on rules and structure, the thought that any riff raff might be able to know something different from those appointed his "masters." What we have with oaths of secrecy then is a statement that we are outsiders.

  2. Hi Nick,Thanks for your comment, though what I was trying to illustrate was that not all groups build up a syncretic history as a means to develop the group mind but focus the group mind on building itself up through ritual work and practice (ritual-language if you will). In essence this often has the same effect as the rejection of so-called mythical origins often become mythicalised within the shared communitas of the group. There are undoubtedly Covens and Societies around the world who employ ritual techniques as core elements and through doing the work forge astral linkages. But this still plays into the rejection of myth theory I explore in this post.However, to take up your point of establishing ourselves as "outsiders", I think this is a bit of a misnomer really. Yes magical practitioners can be seen as outsiders because to those who do not reside on the boundary spaces or who rarely transgress them it can seem so. The mere fact that the shared communitas experienced by magical groups (aka the group mind) which cultivates sacred space amid the social habitus of society illustrates that many so-called outsiders have the ability to transgress normative behaviours.In short, whether I Circle as a Witch or Circumambulate as a Magician I do so by transgressing what is accepted as 'normal'. It sets me apart if known but within my subjective experience I am also a student, a family member, a person with hobbies, a social life… I transgress groups and magic is another one. Sometimes I think the "outsider" label is a form of subversion as a means to practice elitism from the muggles. Lets not forget that within the GD system it is the Hegemon that leads the Candidate! ;)While these two posts have largely been grounded in the sociological understandings I don't pretend for a moment that magic isn't involved but if we see energy in everything then surely looking at the mundane as magical should be explored too? Myth as story is very powerful, I believe you touched upon this in your book Egyptian Shaman when you hypothesised that there was a shamanic culture which pre-dated and birthed the Egyptian Priesthoods. Such an idea that stories evolve into doctrine are old-hat amongst historians and anthropologists. Personally its an oversimplification disavowing other possible theories.Aww Nick now I have more things to blog about! ;P

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