When I was at school, more moons ago than I care to remember, all my little friends used to dream about being teachers. It was the single job they all aspired to and a significant proportion of them bought their red ticking pens and ended up doing it for a living.
(Always being one to defy the trend the Degu Witch used to dream of being locked in a squalid Parisian attic with a debauched and sexually demanding French husband but perhaps that one is a story for another day…). Teaching I can say with perfect honesty has never appealed to me. Not only do I have no particular aptitude for it, I have a total lack of patience, I get annoyed if people fail to understand what I want them to do and I have an all too entrenched belief that my way is the right way. I wouldn’t have lasted six months in the teaching profession and as a bad tempered witch, life wouldn’t have been much fun for the kids I taught either…
So, recently finding myself in a position where I am called upon to teach elements of the Craft has come as a bit of a shock to me. My site was described as a “teaching site” by a fellow witch the other day and it really started me thinking about my intentions as my original plan was to advise and support rather than teach. To me there is a very clear difference between teaching and advising. Advising offers a perspective, one that the recipient of the advice is free to accept or reject. Teaching implies the teacher has a knowledge or a wisdom that the seeker either desires or lacks. To talk about teaching in relation to the Craft actually makes me a little uncomfortable as I feel it implies that there is a single right way of doing things that can be passed from one person to another. I question whether learning through teaching is actually the best way to learn Witchcraft. For me, becoming a witch was about learning to use my own imagination and my own ideas - I learned through trial, error, intuition and a good deal of silly mistakes. I am sceptical I would have ended up as effective in my craft if I had been taught by another person or, Goddess forbid, a textbook.
But then, on the other hand, there is an appreciable value in not allowing people to make the same mistakes. As humans we progress because each generation builds on the knowledge and experience of those who have gone before. If each generation had to learn everything for themselves, from scratch, they wouldn’t get very far. And maybe it’s the same for witches - what value is there is allowing every new practitioner of the craft to flounder in the wilderness when they could be using their energies to develop the foundations of the witches who have walked the path before them?
All this thinking about teaching is particularly relevant for me at the moment as I have recently become personally involved with a young person who is interested in taking further steps into Witchcraft. For the first time, I have allowed another person into the sphere of my craft and let somebody else see elements of my workings - not all of it of course, I have no intention of ever sharing everything, knowledge as they say is power and I have no inclination to ever hand anybody power over me, but certainly I have been happy to permit a glimpse into the world of what it is that I do.
It is all too obvious what she is getting out of it but what I perhaps didn’t expect was how much becoming a teacher would challenge and teach me.
Showing another person what it is I do has concentrated my mind to consider some of the reasons why I actually do things. I tend to operate almost entirely on instinct and as a solitary I rarely question why something feels right. If it works for me, I do it. But in explaining what I do to somebody else I feel I have to offer something more than: “because I do.” Questioning my own practices has helped me to understand more of my own motivations in my workings and even to reject a practice or two that had become habit for no real reason. There are still a few questions I’m expecting – one day my avid pupil will almost certainly ask me why I cast a circle thrice but only draw it in twice (I’ve no idea!) – and I may not always be able to give an answer. But it is interesting to be given an opportunity to question and evaluate my own motivations. My own personal workings can only strengthen from a more disciplined analysis of my magical behaviours.
I think my personality has also benefitted slightly from my recent venture into teaching. As I have said before, I am entirely too egotistical for my own good (with some of the results I get, such arrogance is hardly surprising, lol) and this side of my personality has very much put me off either taking on a student or involving myself in coven work. The humility needed is something I find very difficult, particularly as teaching Witchcraft is not about demonstrating my own abilities or encouraging somebody else to adopt the ways I think. Teaching witchcraft is about helping somebody to find their own voice and their own path. Simply teaching somebody to do as I do would be worse than useless, their results are likely to be rubbish and out of tune with their own inclinations and eventually they would come to resent me for imposing what works for me onto them. To teach the Craft effectively you have to be able to step back, to allow the individual the chance to make some mistakes and to deviate from what you know, as an experienced witch, as the tried and tested. There is no room for arrogance, a witch who believes she knows it all has no business teaching. A witch who believes she can learn nothing from her protégée has no business teaching and is also a fool.
I am lucky, my protégée has exceptional natural skill. If I were given to self honesty (I’m not generally) I’d probably admit she has a good deal more natural ability than I do. She lacks my experience and she lacks that core self belief which plays such an important part in my results but what she does have is a very powerful energy which, one she has learned how to harness it, could be employed to exceptional effect. I am very very conscious of trying not to stifle that innate ability. At the moment she is still at the stage where she looks to me as someone who knows the “right” way to do things but it is my intention (and my devout hope) that as we progress together she will gain the confidence to understand that her own ideas are equally as valid as mine and that working in a different way to me doesn’t make her wrong, it makes her a witch with her own definite structures. Generally in my experience, most witches achieve that confidence through the validation of their own results. I do not expect my protégée to be any different and once her results verify her ability, I suspect there will be no stopping her.
We did a working together the other night and I deliberately stepped back and allowed her to formulate the wording and the actions herself. She took the initiative without hesitation and conducted the spell quite admirably. It was a moment of pride for me, both in her for the burgeoning confidence in her own ability but also for myself as a teacher who can enable someone to discover for themselves without trying to impose my own dogmatic viewpoint upon them. In teaching the Craft I am being called not to share my own wisdom but to help somebody else to discover theirs. Success for me will be when my protégée has the confidence to call herself witch secure in the knowledge that everything about her path is hers and that everything she does and everything she is within the Craft is borne from her own wisdom and experience.
It is easy enough for my protégée to be honest, with or without me she’ll get there in the end if being a witch is truly what she wants. My help will make things easier but it won’t be a crucial factor in her success. However her progress as a seeker will certainly be a crucial element in my success as a teacher. If I end up teaching everything I know I will have learned and achieved nothing. If I end up teaching some of what I know and allowing her to discover, create, imagine and command the rest for herself, I will have succeeded as a viable teacher of the Craft and I will also have succeeded in overcoming one of my own most powerful and debilitating character flaws.
If I fail, not only have I let down my protégée, I have failed the Craft in a cheap and clumsy attempt to reduce it to nothing more than a sum of its parts. I will also have denied myself the chance of my own development, to become something more than the all knowing egoist, to defy the demons of my ego and to become a witch with a genuine humanity and humility who sincerely understands the value of others. I will of course be giving it my all - as you can see, I have a powerful incentive to get this one right.
Image www.sxc.hu/photo/1275249 (shho)
“Come Autumn sae pensive in yellow and grey
And soothe me with tidings of nature’s decay.”
Mabon is the second of the three harvest festivals, celebrated as the wheel of the year turns to Autumn. Although the term is modern, the sentiments are not. The idea of celebrating the gathering of the harvests is as old as man himself.
Most of the crops are gathered now and storage preparations for Winter are well under way. Households are preserving the fruits and berries found in abundance within Autumnal nature. Those in charge of the Winter preparations are making jams, drying and salting meats and storing as much as possible away for the cold months ahead. The weather starts to grow cool and there is a definite chill in the air as we bid the Summer goodbye and embrace the colder half of the year.
Mabon celebrates the Autumn Equinox when days and nights are of equal length. It is a time of perfect balance before the wheel turns back to darkness and days get shorter and nights grow longer on the countdown to Yule. This balance is embraced by Pagans as Mabon is both a time of looking forward and backwards. We look back at the harvests we have reaped this year and give thanks for the bounty, but at the same time we look forward to our stores for the coming Winter and ask the God and Goddess to offer blessings for the cold time ahead. Mabon is a time of reckoning, we know now what we have reaped from the seeds we have sown and we know whether it will be enough to sustain us. Again, the idea of balance, a time of perfect joy for some and perfect sorrow for others as the reckoning of our efforts during the year come to fruition.
Mabon is a time for modern Pagans to take the time to evaluate their year so far. This sabbat represents the last burst of frenzied activity before Samhain freezes the land and the earth is once again bare awaiting the first signs of Spring. It can also be a time of inspired creativity as Pagans turn their attention not only to the cooking and storage preparations but to many different types of crafting. Autumn seems to inspire creativity and encourages Pagans to turn back to the productive pursuits and craft projects abandoned through the long hot summer months.
After Mabon Pagans begin the resting times, the natural inclination of humans to hibernate during the winter months. Activity dies down and contemplation replaces action as more time is spent indoors. The harvest festivals are a time to remember the less fortunate and to offer help, support and supplies to ensure that the vulnerable are supported throughout the Winter. This idea, originating in Paganism has been embraced by many religions throughout the world and harvest festivals are still celebrated in many schools today with donations of food gathered to give to the elderly or to those in need. The premise of thanking the Gods for the harvest can be seen particularly in the American observance of Thanksgiving which is still celebrated throughout the country today.
The God is now aged, his power on the wane. He will die at Samhain and sacrifice himself to the Earth before rebirth at Yule. The Goddess is croning, she too is aged, but resplendent in the prime of her power and wisdom. The earth in the hands of the Goddess will enjoy one last flash of colour, beauty and abundance before settling to sleep as the waiting period for Yule begins.
When someone recently asked me if I believed in the concept of having a soulmate, I was initially a bit scathing. I’ve always rather associated the whole idea of the soulmate with the overly saccharine belief of having just one person you are destined to spend your life with and I don’t like the idea of feeling obliged to traipse round the planet until you find them…. That whole world view is a bit Hollywood to me.
I mean, I like my husband. I like him a lot. But I get the feeling that I’d have done equally ok in a passionate sexual whirlwind with Jack Nicholson. (What? I’m a witch, I’m intensely attracted to menacing…) I don’t like this idea of predestined romance. I think we adapt to people as we meet them and that one relationship can bring advantages that another cannot. I don't like the idea that my life is preordained and my only influence is to search rather than to command. And I'm highly sceptical that if relationships really are about searching out that hidden secret soulmate than (given the odds) anybody ever ends up happy. And it doesn't make sense either, as people we are individuals, not single parts of a two piece jigsaw. The idea of always searching, looking, waiting - its limiting and frankly a bit pointless.
But when I stopped and thought about it a bit more, I started to question why the idea of having a soulmate needs to have any association with romance at all. Some of the people who have played the most key roles in my life (and I'm betting yours too) haven't had a romantic connection with me at all. Ask me to list the names of all the men I've had sex with and I'll fall asleep counting. Ask me to name the people who have had a profound impact on myself as a woman and as a witch and I'll give you a complete list of names without any hesitation. Soul mates? Maybe, some of them. But nothing to do with the romance.
My view on the life after death matter is firmly linked to the idea of reincarnation. And following on from that it is entirely logical (to me anyway) that as we reincarnate into new forms and new lives, we are inclined toward those with whom we have previously forged a spiritual relationship. And this doesn’t have to be the stars and hearts idea of romantic love or even particularly close friendships. My own view is that soulmates can play a major role in your life in one incarnation and perhaps a small but significant one in the next. Sometimes you live your lives together, sometimes you are the ships passing in the night. But always there is that spark of recognition, an attraction to one another that is difficult to explain in the context of any one single existence on the planet.
I’ll give you two personal examples. The first is one of my longest friendships. An entirely mismatched affair on the surface of it. We are fundamentally different to each other on every level, we have nothing in common, different backgrounds, different social standing, different aspirations. But despite everything we have an understanding between us and a need for each other that has lasted the best part of 20 years. Our core relationship is based on the most intrinsic parts of who we are, a spiritual recognition that pulled us together and allowed us to become key players in the life of the other.
The second is a stranger example. One night, many years ago I had a crisis. One of those single pivotal moments in your life when everything crashes down around you and you wonder if you will ever actually be able to pick up the pieces. And amid all the existential chaos (the Degu Witch doesn't have practical crises, she has existential collapses) I turned to a friend I hardly knew for urgent emotional support. Not my family, my then partner or any of my close friends but a man who was a peripheral friend at best. We were neither close before nor afterwards but at that point in time he was exactly the person I needed. And as I knew unhesitantly to turn to him, he equally knew exactly what to say to help me going forward. We lost touch shortly afterwards, his role in my life was done. But his help was invaluable and a profound source of support at one of the rare times I very badly needed it.
One of these soul mates was destined to play a long term role in my life, one to give me a single source of support. Do I believe I have met them both before? Yes, it is very likely.
Do I believe I will meet them both again? Yes, I actually think that I do.
I don’t believe you necessarily meet all of your soulmates in any one life. Some may be resting on the astral plane, others may not have a valid role to play in this particular life. But the more I think about it, the more I do recognise the concept that some of the links we forge in our journeys through the world can outlive a single existence. And that some people are destined to be a partner for the entire journey and some for just a part of it.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1281079 (code1name)
This is, to be honest, more of a philosophical exercise than a spiritual one. I believe that most people (and I am no exception) have an intuitive rather than a logical approach to morality. Most of us feel our way through life rather than apply a set of rules to a given situation. So in writing an analysis of the oft quoted "An Ye harm None, Do What Ye Will," I am seeking more to explore my own thoughts and reactions inspired by the Wiccan morality than I am in trying to denigrate its usefulness to those who follow it as a creed. So just to underline that, this is in no way intended to be a criticism of anybody, Wiccan or otherwise.
My interest lies in whether or not I can use the Rede to establish a consensus on personal morality and whether it can actually be of use in shaping my view of how to act in the world. If I can draw any conclusion at all from my somewhat convoluted musings, it is merely that (to shamelessly paraphrase poor Oscar Wilde) morality is rarely pure and never simple. I believe that morality will always be too complex to be reduced to mere words.
The key difference between the Wiccan Rede (and I stress when I refer to the Rede I am specifically relating to the summarising final eight words) and the explicit morality of other religions is that the Rede is meant to be interpreted by its followers. This differs markedly from the commandments of the Christian faith where the commandments are more clearly intended to be an imperative. Christians are (rightly or wrongly, I make no judgement) expected to follow the rules set down as part of their faith. The guidance in the Rede is merely a tool to stimulate the individual Wiccan conscience. It is the personal definition of harm, the personal definition of the concept of whom is potentially to be caused harm and the personal definition of what actions are therefore appropriate that bring the morality into the Rede. Without this interpretation there is no morality.
(As an aside) I would note however that interpretation is intrinsically a concern for all faiths. To consider the example of the Christian commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." Ostensibly this appears pretty straightforward. But upon applying a little light analysis it becomes harder to comprehend. Thou shalt not kill what? Is it always wrong to kill? How about if you have to kill to prevent somebody else being killed? Euthanasia? Abortion? Help!!
So, having established that the Rede is reliant on interpretation, this raises the question of whom exactly is doing the interpreting. My definition of harm is likely to differ from that of my fellow witches, my friends, my work colleagues etc. Let us suppose my personal definition of harm is simply lifted from the OED: "physical injury, especially that which is deliberately inflicted: " I may believe on this interpretation that I am causing no harm with verbal abuse. Another person, with a wider definition of harm, may believe that verbal abuse can be the cause of actual harm. Herein lies the problem with the morality. Both myself and my verbally abusive friend are completing the same action (verbally abusing our hypothetical mutual friend, the victim). I believe I am doing something that causes no harm, my friend believes they are doing something that causes harm. In my eyes, I am adhering to the spirit of the Rede. Does that make me any more moral a person? Put simply, if I do a bad thing but don't believe it is a bad thing I am doing, am I as culpable as I would be if I knew what I was doing was bad?
So as a key point, does there need to be a universal definition of harm for the Rede to be of use? Possibly. But sometimes the same act can have different moral value depending on the circumstances. So having considered the personal interpretation of the person viewing the situation it is also important to view the situation itself. Lets take the simple act of stabbing a biro through a person's throat (I think you can see where I'm going with this...) By my OED definition of harm (and indeed by most people's definition of harm) this act can be said to warrant the term "harm" to be used. But taking that same act (and introducing our poor choking to death individual) the same act takes on a completely different meaning when I perform my emergency tracheochtomy and save the individual's life). Strict adherance to the Rede would actually have prevented my impromptu surgery. The context here is why I choose to cause harm. So there is clearly a conflict as to whether causing harm can be considered, in some contexts, to be a moral behaviour in itself.
Possibly the difficulty can be resolved with the answer that it is sometimes acceptable to cause harm when it is a clear means to a good end. But this creates difficulties in itself. What if I kill a man because I believe he is about to open fire and cause numerous casualties then I find out I was mistaken and I have in fact, albeit accidentally, committed murder. Is my inititally laudable act any the less moral for being the result of a mistake?
And that is not to mention degrees and consequences of harm. A simple thought experiment (I believe created by John Stuart Mill, don't ask for references, I'm a witch not an academic....) has a man forcibly given the choice between shooting 20 people dead or shooting one person dead, the caveat being that the single person will go on to find a cure for cancer. Granted this is a thought experiment rather than a plausible happening but it suits our purposes for illustrating the principle that sometimes and under some circumstances it could be argued that choosing to cause the maximum harm could be the most moral thing to do. This is a slightly simplistic way of viewing this experiment as it could be argued our heroic cancer curer will go on to save significantly many more lives than the 20 men who were shot. However it does not negate the clear argument that sometimes there are circumstances where some people would perceive the short term harm to justify the long term end results. And possibly even circumstances when the decision to cause the greater harm could be the most moral choice.
Having looked at the problems involved in deciding when to take action, it is equally problematic to consider when not to take action and whether any blame can be attached to the aptly named sin of omission. To take a common example – I walk by a lake and see a young child drowning. Agreed, the moral action to take is to leap in and drag the child to safety. But how about if I choose to do nothing? I am not committing an act of harm. I am still following the implied advice of the Rede. Yet there is a drowned child whom I have done nothing to help. The morality here is whether I have an obligation not just to not do but also to do. The letter of the law interpretation of the Rede allows me go about my daily business with no impetus to take any positive actions, merely to avoid negative action. But is that enough to substantiate morality? Does not the very fact that I share the earth with other people also lay upon me a sense of responsibility to take positive actions to bring about the best solution. Am I more or less morally culpable for walking by and letting the child drown than I would be if I had actually chucked him in there in the first place?
Is it ok to do what you want in a vacumn and tiptoe through life taking care not to tred on anybody's toes. Isn't morality not about what you can do and what you should do?
Moving on to what I think is the most interesting part of the Rede – the concept of "none." As with the Christian commandment, we looked at the difficulties inherant in interpreting "Thou shalt not kill" and questionning who the killing actually refers to. Here in the Rede we encounter similar problems. Does the "none" refer to humans? Humans and animals? Humans and animals and plants? Humans and animals and plants and bacteria? Are there different levels of moral culpability on the spectrum? Is killing a human worse than killing an animal? Is killing a dog worse than killing a rat? Is there any moral dilemma at all involved in killing the bacteria on my kitchen surfaces? To the evangelistic vegetarian, I am making the wrong moral choice when I choose to eat meat. I am choosing to harm the animals I eat. To a meat eating animal activist, I am fine to sit down to my steak dinner but completely wrong to spend my Sunday afternoons hunting foxes (I don't, I actually spend them playing Farmville). Again, a question of interpretation. Let us say that I decide to take the most extreme position I can, I become a Fruitarian and I chooe to only eat what falls off a tree. I stop cleaning my house, I wear natural fibres. Now what? Well for a start I am house bound, I can't even have a quick walk through the woods without crushing hundreds of little insects underfoot. If I want to cause no harm at all, to nobody and to nothing I had better get used to the idea of sitting on my own sofa for a long time. Its all a continum of course. We all have different views on where our own morality sits on the spectrum. And once again, does the same act take on differing levels of morality just because interpretation differs between individuals?
The concept of "none" also raises the question of whether the "none" embraces your own self. Apart from the ethical dilemma of suicide there are simpler, closer to home, issues that involve harm to yourself. Is overeating morally wrong? Smoking? Drinking? Does a person have the same moral obligation to themselve that society would perceive they do to others? Can I offset the "harm" of knocking back a bottle of red wine with the justification that the momentary tranquility (pre-hangover of course) will be of more benefit to me than the minimal harm done to my liver by my single moment of indulgence?
I'm moving to the final few words of the Rede now. "Do what you will." This can be read in two different ways – "Do what you want" or "Do what you should." The first interpretation reads along the lines of: "If you do no harm then its ok to do what you want." The second interpretation is more "If you take the action that brings no harm, you will be doing the right thing." This reminds me greatly of a maxim from John Robinson (a Christian Bishop writing about God in the early 1960s) who stated: "Love God and do what you will." This caused any amount of controversy that the liberal Bishop was advocating the belief that its ok to do whatever you want, providing you love God. Trendy! Unfortunately, the actual intention was to mean - If you love God in everything that you do, you will be guided to do the right thing. And its the same thing here with the Rede, Is it saying live your life in a bubble and don't hurt anyone? Or is it saying consider the implicit harm in every act you take – think about the effects your actions can have on others. And through this thought process your will be guided to being the right one?
Concentrating on the concept that I do what I will? Who is the I of that sentence? Is it the I that wants to have a merry old time tonight and stay up all hours of the night or the I that wants to impress my boss by being bright eyed tomorrow morning? My will will differ whether we are talking about my long term desires or my short term needs. Fundamentally there is no person standing at a specific moment of space and time who I can quantify to be absolutely me. It follows from this that it is nigh on impossible to determine my own will.
I said at the beginning that morality is always too complex to be reduced to words. I stand by this statement but I also want to add that morality is also too important to be reduced to words. Each of us as thinking human beings has the choice and the chance to create and evolve our own morality. The Rede, the commandments, the religious laws across all cultures can only take us so far. In the end we can only be guided by our own intuition and our own inherant understanding of what is right or wrong.
Article first published on Witchvox 2012
Image http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1236829 (twasa)
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