Monday, March 14, 2011

A "Revisionist" Manifesto

Since last November my friend Frater Barrabbas has been following an ongoing debate in the Pagan community over how closely modern Paganism resembles its historical ancestors. In a more recent article he discusses his interpretation of the three philosophical perspectives that seem to be fueling the debate.

These three different philosophical perspectives are based on three different approaches to engaging with a tradition. I call these three perspectives “traditional lore,” “reconstructionist” and the middle ground of “objectified traditional lore,” or “revisionism.” If you ever wanted to be entertained, just get together three individuals who are die-hard adherents of these three different perspectives, introduce them to a strategic point of disagreement, and then let the fur fly.

According to Barrabbas' definitions, Traditionalists are defined as members of a particular initiatic system or lineage who adhere to to the teachings of that tradition regardless of outside evidence to the contrary. Reconstructivists seek to restore the practices of a particular group at a particular period in time according to academic writing and research about the tradition. Finally, Revisionists validate and augment their lore by researching academic and scientific information. Like this. By those definitions I'm clearly a Revisionist and proud of it. In fact, I have no idea why anyone would want to be a Traditionalist or Reconstructionist if they're at all interested in doing magick.


Purely Traditionalist systems suffer from the accumulation of dogma. Without any sort of peer review inaccurate information can wind up being disseminated. For example, the Golden Dawn origin story about Anna Sprengel and her body of European adepts made for a great plot element in my novel but most experts agree that it is probably not historically true. From the fragmentary technical documents that have been published on the Golden Dawn tradition sometime between Aleister Crowley's work with Macgregor Mathers (Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae) and Israel Regardie's publication of the Stella Matutina documents (The Golden Dawn) it looks like the Lesser Invoking Ritual of the Hexagram was replaced by the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Hexagram, a change which is taught by most of the modern Golden Dawn orders but which according to my own empirical research on probability shifts massively weakens the system.

Reconstructionists sometimes make important new historical discoveries about their respective traditions that prove useful, but without revision any such system is always going to contain elements that were appropriate in a particular time and place but are no longer relevant to the modern world. For example, there a million books out there that purport to teach "Celtic" Paganism. Many experts believe that the discovery of bog men clearly demonstrates that the ancient Celts practiced human sacrifice. Should we? Obviously a modern person is going to respond in the negative to that one, but as soon as you start changing even extreme elements of the system to fit the modern world you effectively are a Revisionist anyway. I also think the idea that if a magical practice is old it automatically works well needs to be discarded once and for all. My electric refrigerator works a lot better than an icebox.

When Traditionalists and Reconstructions went to war over whether or not Ronald Hutton's ideas about the history of Neo-Paganism were correct my Revisionist response was pretty much a big yawn. Who cares? Seriously. Either the techniques work or they don't. Whether or not they're ancient or modern shouldn't make any difference, especially since the debate seemed to be between two sides that couldn't agree over what percentage of modern Pagan practices have ancient roots. The more important question is what percentage of modern Pagan techniques work and what percentage don't. If all the people kicking up a huge fuss about whether the correct percentage of ancient lore is 10% or 90% instead performed a series of experiments with various Pagan magical techniques and recorded their results something useful would be generated rather than an emotional but pointless debate.

Magick is a technology. That means if something works better it is better, plain and simple. Some of its effects can be subjective, but that only makes evaluation of those aspects difficult, not impossible. Psychologists research subjective mental phenomena all the time. And as far as practical techniques go, all you need to do is set up experiments to test the probability shifts those techniques produce. Ancient methods are still worth studying because the human mind has changed little over the last several millenia, but they should be researched, tested, and integrated into modern systems only if they are found to be effective. The "sifting" method that most proto-sciences use to accumulate knowledge can occasionally produce spectacular successes that the formal scientific method will miss, but at the same time it can produce some spectacular failures, superstitions that manage to live on as the tradition evolves despite their ineffectiveness.

What amazes me from following this whole debate is how ridiculous it is. If your spiritual system works for you and produces the results you want, why should you care if it's ancient or modern? If it doesn't work for you, why should you practice it? Thelema works for me and The Book of the Law was written in 1904. I've certainly never lost any sleep over its relatively recent origins. As a matter of fact, from the standpoint of study, being in possession of the original manuscript is quite useful, and if the book were thousands of years old it almost certainly would have been lost. Furthermore, Thelema's modern elements such as "the method of science, the aim of religion" are a big part of its appeal to me and had it originated even hundreds of years ago those elements would probably not be present.

UPDATE: The comment thread for this article has drifted over into discussing the issue of individuals in the Pagan community who do not practice magick but still want to be treated as authority figures. That conversation is continuing over at Rob's place.

Frater Barrabbas' response to this article can be found here.

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12 comments:

Jack Faust said...

LOL. "Went to war" over Hutton? That wasn't a war, man. It wasn't even a very enlightening debate. I saw a total of five or six blog posts from four or five individuals and one complete douchebag. There weren't even any effective curses displayed for the admiring public to rip off.

Your magical wars suck, Ananael. Perhaps saying this should please be - as it means less people running around threaning to astrally nuke one another - but the reason you yawned was because it wasn't a war. It wasn't even an interesting diversion.

Ananael Qaa said...

Obviously I meant "went to war" metaphorically, since if there really were curses flying you can bet I would have covered that point. But I guess from the few posts I did read I assumed that the debate was bigger than a couple of folks making noises. If that's all it was, you're right - my "yawn" is fully explained.

Part of the reason that I assumed this was a larger and more emotional debate is because I've seen a number of in-person examples that have spawned an unbelievable amount of drama over the "oldness" or "newness" of Pagan beliefs and practices. If that wasn't the case this time around, that's good. It at least suggests the community has matured a bit.

Jack Faust said...

@Ananael: It may have gotten larger and more emotional than what I noticed; I honestly got a bit bored and tuned out of the discussion early.

However: it's a recurrent debate, and one which will never really go away. One of the ways we tend to view religious or spiritual authenticity in the U.S. and Western Europe is based on historical precedence. This isn't necessarily the correct means to gauge what is or isn't authentic - there was a time, after all, when Christianity was quite new and hounded for suspected magical practices, cannibalism, and worship of a criminal - but the linear and progressive mode of thought tends to lead one to such a conclusion.

I do not think it got above some hotly exchanged words and sour feelings, though. If there was to be a war over Hutton's work, it most likely would have occurred around 1998-2001 when the book was first published or being worked on. It didn't, and since then it's actually been hard to convince many folks to read the damn thing. At least two people have complained to me that the book is "too dryly written" to finish.

Matured? Perhaps. Perhaps in places. Although I'm not really sure how a mature religion or subculture acts. I've yet to encounter anything beyond mature individuals, who also take part in such cultures, religions, and spiritual nooks and crannies.

Rob said...

Part of the issue is that inside of Paganism, which is where this argument usually comes up, and in certain parts of the LHP there are a large number of people who believe in not working magic and that working magic is dangerous, and even a large number that believe that it is wrong to work magic.

Just last month I had a Wiccan high priestess claim that I had no idea about what spirituality was because I didn't take my spirituality seriously enough, and this was followed by the statement that, like a truly spiritual person, she never works any kind of magic. People like this can't go with what works, because they don't practice anything. Instead they have to rely on dogma, and since the dogma they appeal to is what grants them their authority, they have a vested interest in arguing its validity.

Within Paganism the belief seems to stem from the fact that there is a bit of Wiccan dogma that says magic should only be used when absolutely needed and never for unnecessary acts. I always took this as Gardner giving Wiccans a dogmatic excuse for why they're not going to try to prove their magic to skeptics. However a lot of Pagans have taken this to mean that magic is sacred and should never be used except in absolute emergencies (which if you never practice, it's not going to work when you have an emergency).

This goes hand in hand with people claiming they aren't Pagan to practice magic, but rather because that's the religion they feel comfortable with. It goes along with them wanting a religion that doesn't judge people, or that let's them dress up in ren-fair outfits, or that's about reclaiming their past and white pride, and it also breeds a sense of superiority to the older Christian religions that aren't evolved enough to dress up like pirates and embrace racial superiority.

And of course these beliefs are being pushed by people within the community who don't practice magic and don't have any understanding of it yet want status and position within the community. Normally I don't care what other people believe, but these are people who actively attack me, and also attack anyone who sincerely wants to learn and understand magic. Anyone with real power and ability is a threat to their position and must be dealt with, and people who actually want to learn magic may eventually expose them as a fraud, and so they first attempt to dissuade them, and if that fails they label them a trouble maker and not really spiritual in order to preserve the rest of the group.

Jack Faust said...

@Rob: You wrote: Within Paganism the belief seems to stem from the fact that there is a bit of Wiccan dogma that says magic should only be used when absolutely needed and never for unnecessary acts.

That doesn't much fit with and harm ye none, do what you will, now does it?

Unless I was provided with a specific instance, I'd find the inclusion of Gardner's name to the idea you listed above comes across as very dubious. Doreen Valiente makes no comments along those lines that I've seen and if Gardner had imparted such ideas to his disciples, she'd very likely have mentioned it. She covers most the disagreements they had in The Rebirth of Witchcraft (Chapter 3: Gerald Gardner) and that is not amongst them.

I'm guessing the idea you were given was a later development from another source (such as say, Ray Buckland) that has been misappropriated into the legacy of Gardner. On the other hand, I've never read The Meaning of Witchcraft or all of Witchcraft today, so... I could be wrong.

Rob said...

@Mr Faust: I'm not really sure who first said it or in what context, which is why I qualified what I said with I took this as Gardner, instead of citing something he said specifically. I've always assumed it was Gardner because I've seen it in several Books of Shadows, both published and unpublished, which claim a Gardnerian lineage. I've also seen the idea reinterpreted into a lot of different Wiccan works, in fact most that I've ever read, so it had to have been some early and influential Wiccan that came up with the idea.

It's that whole idea about magic being sacred and how it shouldn't be used to show off or as proof for someone else. It doesn't really fall in line with Harm None..., which is why I've always felt it was just a way to excuse Wiccans from having to deal with skeptics that demand that they prove the validity of magic. My main issue is with the reinterpretation of this concept to the idea that we should never or almost never use magic, which I've noticed has become fairly common in some parts of the Pagan community.

Jack Faust said...

@Rob: I have no doubt the idea exists. I've encountered it, too. But I have serious doubts that it began with Gardner... I can't quite imagine him looking up from a copy of the Blue Equinox and saying, "you know what would really better the pagan feel of my religious structure? Not using magic except in extreme times of need! (Training? What's this about training? Why on earth would I train you, 'eh? Innit enough that I help you into a heathen and a witch?)"

That said: from the Wiccan perspective as I understand it, "the craft" is about one's connection to the Gods and enhancing that. Spellcraft and sorcery are secondary to this, the most important focus of religious witchery. However, it is necessary to make use of certain esoteric techniques to reach the font and well-spring of the Gods (as well as, in an initiatory tradition, initiation). So saying you "never practice magic" as a Wiccan is a very silly statement. Saying you do not practice thaumaturgy, or practical magic is quite different. Me-thinks the person who made such comments to you doesn't know quite as much as they think they do. I hope I don't know the individual...

Rob said...

@Mr Faust: The earlier interpretations I read seemed to imply that magic was sacred and shouldn't be used to show off or prove its validity. I actually thought it made a lot of sense, whoever wrote it, considering people like Randi who have gone so far as to fabricate evidence in order to absolutely disprove certain phenomena. I think it's just been misinterpreted by some to mean that people shouldn't be using magic.

Unless you're very familiar with the current Vegas community, I don't think you would know her. When I met her she was actively recruiting for a new coven and I sort of got the impression she hadn't been Wiccan very long and that she was lying about her degrees. At one point she also said that Georgian Wicca was something I made up, so that doesn't bode well to her claims of being third degree either.

Ananael Qaa said...

I don't see a problem with the idea that you shouldn't use magick just to show off or prove its existence to skeptics. If Randi was honest about his challenge (he's not, and don't get me started on that...) the EMF evocation experiments I've posted here are probably reliable enough to pass a standard scientific trial. The thing is that I think if we were to prove the existence of magick once and for all we as practitioners could be in for a world of trouble. In countries where belief in magick is widespread people get accused of witchcraft and murdered by mobs every time somebody in the community gets hit by a big enough misfortune or natural disaster.

If somebody is Pagan because that's the religion that inspires them but not a magician I don't necessarily think it stems from them wanting to be renfair douches or feel superior to Christians. People choose their religious beliefs for a lot of different reasons, many of them positive, and I'm not going to argue with them about it or presume to understand their motivation. However, if they start telling other people that they can be more "spiritual" by not doing magick (which is just about the opposite of reality) they'll get an earfull from me every time. And if they decide that sending a magical attack my way is a good idea I can pretty much guarantee that they'll wish they hadn't, especially if they aren't keeping up their personal practice.

Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

Finally there is a lot of harm done to the community by these people. This sort of leadership breeds more of its kind. People in these groups never become practitioners if they stay with them. After all there isn't anyone there to teach or train them how to actually do magic. If someone like that does show up, they are usually chased out and vilified. If a person tries to learn on their own, they are often told not to, scolded, and possibly vilified themselves. It's an effort which is causing the demagification of Paganism, and threatens to do the same to other paths.

And a lot of people who are looking for actual magic end up leaving the community or giving up all together because of groups like these. They looked for magic, and all they found were groups full of non-practitioners who couldn't do magic.

As for the superiority thing, I probably misspoke. What I've noticed isn't just a superiority to Christianity, but to all 'older' religions, however I said Christianity because the people I've noticed talking about only seem to know about Christianity, and only a very limited and often prejudiced view of those religions. I've noticed it online and in actual groups, and it wreaks of ignorance of world religions and world history and often times seems like they're sniffing their own farts if you understand the reference :) I could go into more detail about the trend, but I've already gone on too long with this post so I'll save it for another time.

Rob said...

I had to split my comment into two because it was like a 100 characters too big. For some reason blogger won't post the first half of my comment, only the second. Hopefully it's just stuck in a spam trap or something. I'll just try posting the whole thing on my own blog I guess.